How can I tell if my flight will be safe before I board?

Flying may be the safest way to travel, but it sure hasn’t felt that way lately.

Images of a burning plane on a Tokyo runway and a blown door from an Alaska Airlines flight appear to have undermined public confidence in air travel.

And there’s also this burning question: Could anyone have known this would happen?


As it turns out, there are some telltale signs that your next flight could be dangerous, especially if you’re traveling internationally or to a country with lax aviation regulations.

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But first, a reality check: Flying to the US is actually safe. REALLY sure.

“You would have to fly every day for thousands of years before you ever have a serious accident,” said Anthony Radchenko, CEO of AirAdvisor.

George Novak, president of the trade group National Air Carriers Association, said there are numerous safeguards in place to prevent an aviation disaster. So, for example, when Alaska Airlines 1282 suffered a mid-air explosion, the Federal Aviation Administration acted quickly to ground and inspect the plane.

“Flying in the United States is very safe,” he said.

However, people want to know if you can tell if you are boarding a dangerous flight. Experts say it can.

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Can you tell if your plane is safe?

Ask any aviation professional if you can see a commercial airplane while boarding to determine its safety, and they’ll probably laugh at you.

“Typically, there’s nothing the average passenger can see,” said Justin Maasdam, a pilot who runs a digital pilot app called Skymatrix. “Furthermore, historically, plane crashes have had no obvious indications that something was wrong.”

How about a quick visual inspection or crew interview? It’s not really an option, either.

“You can’t kick the tires, look under the hood of the flight you’re taking or talk to the captain,” said Harding Bush, associate director of safety operations at Global Rescue, a provider of safety and risk management services. travel. .

But there are red flags that can indicate the aircraft is not airworthy. They may not apply to a commercial flight operating in the US, but if you are traveling on a small charter plane, such as a six-passenger plane traveling to the Grand Canyon, or to a country with less safety regulations, there is a checklist.

Your aircraft may be unsafe if this happens

Here are some signs that your aircraft may not be airworthy:

  • Bad smell: Strong winds, fuel fumes, or burning odors can be a sign of a problem with the aircraft’s systems. If you smell raw sewage, it could be a sign of an improperly maintained aircraft.
  • Broken or loose components: If you see panels attached with duct tape or parts of the seats, armrests or overhead compartment doors falling off, this is a red flag.
  • Lack of safety equipment: Does the aircraft have all the necessary safety equipment, such as oxygen masks, life jackets and fire extinguishers? If any of these devices are missing, it could be a problem.
  • Stains or leaks: Water stains may indicate a leak in the body, while oil stains may indicate an engine problem.
  • Visible damage: Scratches, scratches or rust on the exterior of the aircraft can be a sign of trouble. Minor cosmetic issues don’t necessarily indicate a safety concern, but significant damage should give you pause.
  • Worn interior: Excessive wear and tear can also suggest a lack of proper maintenance and attention to detail.

Note that seeing any of these things does not automatically make the aircraft unsafe. But you should mention your concern to a crew member before you take off. If they are dismissive, you may be on the wrong flight.

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That said, it’s easy for security concerns to become overwhelming. A scratch on an aircraft does not mean it is not airworthy. An old interior does not necessarily mean that the aircraft is unsafe.

For example, last summer I flew from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Thailand, on a discount airline. But something felt familiar about the interior of the cabin. The purple and white color scheme of the interior did not match the airline’s livery.

My seat was well worn but I wasn’t worried until I saw the seat. The instructions weren’t in Thai or English – they were in Icelandic. Then I realized we were sitting on a repurposed Wow Air plane. Wow shut down in 2019 and my airline had bought some of its planes. He hadn’t bothered to renovate the cabin interior and I worried he might have overlooked something else.

I shouldn’t have. Thailand’s airlines are well-regulated and safe, and after getting over the initial shock, my flight to Chiang Mai felt like a blast from the past. Well, maybe that’s a poor choice of words. Let’s say it was kind of retro?

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It’s a good time to think about aviation safety

The concerns about airline safety come amid an FAA investigation into several high-profile runway incursions that prompted the agency to form a safety review team last year.

Travelers are now also asking tough questions, and they’re not taking anything for granted.

The message from passengers could not be clearer: air travel may be safe, but it can always be safer. Who can disagree with that?

Elliott’s tips for avoiding an unsafe flight

  • Avoid the blacklist: The European Union has a list of airlines banned from operating in its airspace. So does the FAA. Airlines are restricted because they do not meet minimum safety standards and have insufficient government oversight. If you’re traveling to the developing world, it might be a good idea to review the list and avoid those airlines. They may act in an unsafe manner.
  • Book a ticket on an airline you know: This is especially true if you are flying outside the US. It’s almost always better to choose an airline over a discount startup, even if it costs a little more. Experts agree. “I would recommend flying with a reputable carrier,” said Shem Malmquist, an aviation security expert at the Florida Institute of Technology. “They have strong oversight and do everything they can to ensure the aircraft is airworthy before departure.”
  • Select your aircraft type: You can use an app like Kayak or FlightRadar24 to get information about your aircraft type. In fact, some travelers have already started doing just that to eradicate 737 Max planes. Some of the information is quite detailed, said Bush, director at Global Rescue. “You can learn about recent flight history and additional information such as the age of the aircraft, when necessary upgrades were made and general safety data,” he said. You can then make an informed decision about whether to fly.

Christopher Elliott is an author, consumer advocate and journalist. He founded Elliott Advocacy, a nonprofit organization that helps solve consumer problems. It publishes Elliott Confidential, a travel newsletter, and Elliott Report, a customer service news site. If you need help with a consumer issue, you can contact him here or email him at [email protected].

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