International air travel has become remarkably safe in recent years, with deadly accidents like last month's Lion Air crash in Indonesia becoming more rare. But statistics aside, the accident is making travelers wary of flying in some countries or on certain foreign airlines. The safety of Indonesia's airlines had been questioned long before the Lion Air accident.
"There has been a lot more trepidation about flying smaller airlines that Americans have never heard of" since the Oct. 29 Lion Air crash, said Blake Fleetwood, president of Cook Travel in New York. "It is pushing people to the bigger airlines. People are scared."
Before plunking down big money to book international flights, nervous flyers can tap into resources that can provide red-flag warnings if there are doubts about a carrier's safety.
- The Federal Aviation Administration determines whether countries meet international safety standards set by the United Nations' aviation agency. Five currently do not: Thailand, Bangladesh, Ghana, Curacao and Sint Maarten. Airlines from those countries can't launch new flights to the U.S. (Indonesia got off the blacklist in 2016.)
- Europe bans 120 airlines from its skies. Most are smaller carriers from developing countries in Africa and parts of Asia. Lion Air was banned for nearly a decade until 2016; other blackballed Indonesian carriers only got off the list in June.
- Aviation Safety Network has an accident database that can be searched by airline or country.
- Websites like AirlineRatings.com rank carriers based on crash records and other data. That site gave Lion Air a rating of one star out of seven in 2016 but six out of seven last year, after U.S. and European regulators upgraded Indonesia's aviation regulatory regime. Such ratings have their critics. Skytrax , a UK company that does research for airlines and surveys travelers on airline quality, says there is no objective way to rank airlines on safety due to uneven reporting of incidents by airlines and regulators around the world.
- Companies such as Argus International will provide reports on charter airlines. Since they charge a fee, typically $50 to $150, such services are mostly used by corporate travel departments.
Fatal airline accidents have been declining for about two decades. By some accounts, 2017 was the safest year yet. The Aviation Safety Network and To70 , an aviation consultant in the Netherlands, said there were no fatal crashes involving commercial passenger airlines last year. The reports excluded cargo planes, military aircraft and flights on planes certified to carry fewer than 14 people.
"Aviation safety has become much better even in places that were notoriously unsafe at one time," said Alberto Riva, managing editor of The Points Guy , a website for frequent flyers.
Within a country, Riva said, some airlines have better safety records than others. He said he would not worry about flying on Garuda Indonesia, the national carrier, "but if I could find a way to circumvent Lion Air, I would do that."
Fleetwood, the travel agent, said, "I would steer clear of any airline that is not certified to fly to the European Union."
Matt Kepnes, who wrote "How to Travel the World on $50 a Day," said he follows the news closely enough to have a sense of which airlines have good safety records. "I don't do much digging beyond that unless it is an airline I haven't heard of, especially one that doesn't fly to the U.S. or [European Union], as they have tight airline regulations. Then I look."
Kepnes said airlines that fly to many countries tend to have a better safety record. He is more cautious about smaller airlines and domestic carriers in countries where he doesn't trust the safety standards.
"I won't fly a Russian carrier ... they have a history of poor safety and the planes are quite old," he said. "Indonesia has a spotty safety record, so I don't like flying their domestic airlines. The same for India."
Jay Johnson, president of Coastline Travel Advisors in Garden Grove, California, said clients frequently ask about personal safety, but are less likely to ask if transportation is risky.
"Because there is so much attention placed on dangerous countries or regions, travelers tend to ask questions of safety on the ground rather than how they get there," he said. He said air travel in the U.S. is so safe that when people ask about a specific airline, it's usually about creature comforts and not safety records.
"It's almost as if travelers assume they will arrive safely, but does the airline have lay-flat beds?" he said.
Travel agents frequently recommend buying travel insurance for overseas itineraries in case you are unable to make the trip. However, if you try to cancel because the airline on which you are scheduled to fly has an accident, insurance is unlikely to reimburse you. Cancellations are covered only if the reason is specifically listed in the policy — such as terrorism, a weather event or illness — said Jenna Hummer of Squaremouth.com , a travel insurance-comparison site.
The exception is for people who buy a "cancel for any reason" policy. However, such policies generally must be bought when you book the trip or soon after, and they typically cost about 40 percent more than standard trip-cancellation insurance, Hummer said.