Categorized | Airlines

Ask the Captain: Which commercial airplane is the safest?

Posted on 14 March 2011

Question: Captain Cox, what equipment has the safest track record? How do I obtain a designated plane’s tail number, and is there a web-based database where I can obtain the age of the aircraft? Also, is there any truth to the view that bigger planes tend to be more stable through turbulence and thus “safer?” I’ve flown (Airbus) A380s, (Boeing) 773s and 744s countless times, and find that they are the most comfortable, especially the younger fleets among foreign carriers. It’s frustrating that the equipment used in an overwhelming majority of domestic flights is either aged (in comparison to foreign carriers) or limited to 737s and ERJs (regional jets).

Near the aft of the airplane, a registration number reveals where it was made, according to the letter the number begins with. Captain Cox would characterize all Western-built modern jets as safe.

 Answer: It is very hard to say that one airplane is safer than another. There are many components of a safety rating, such as accident rate, if any, number of flights, number of airlines flying the airplane, where it is flown, experience of the pilots, and others. Let’s use Concorde as an example. Prior to the accident in Paris, Concorde had had no accidents. On a chart it would have shown up as one of the safest airplanes in the world. Following the accident it would have shown up on the same graph as one of the least safe. This was because there were very few of them and they did not fly frequently. Their exposure was low; consequently, a single accident dramatically altered the statistics. I would characterize all of the Western-built modern jets as safe. If you look toward the aft part of the airplane, you will see the registration number. If the airplane is registered in the U.S., the registration number will begin with N, a Canadian registered airplane will have a C before the letters, while a British airplane will have a G before the letters. Each country has an identification letter(s) assigned by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). I do not know of a specific website for the age of airplanes. Maybe one of your fellow readers can help.Larger airplanes, due to their mass, do not react as much in turbulence. But I would not say that this makes them any more or less safe. The rides of a 747-400, 777, A340, and A330 are similar. I have not ridden on an A380 yet to make any comparison. I am looking forward to the opportunity.The B737 is a true workhorse. It began service in the late 1960s and is the most widely sold airliner in the world. The Airbus A320 family entered service in 1987. These are the two airplanes types that fly most of the passengers around the world. Both of these airplanes are efficient, comfortable and safe. Is it possible that you are comparing international widebody flights against domestic narrowbody ones? I see B737s and A320 all around the world. The smaller jets, (Bombardier) CRJs and (Embraer) ERJs provide jet service to smaller communities. Unfortunately, the economic conditions have expanded the smaller jets. This is true around the world and not just in the U.S.

Q: From a passenger’s viewpoint, is it any less safe to fly at night than in the daytime?

A: In General Aviation, with small airplanes you can find an increase in incidents and accidents for night flight. For turboprops and jets, there is no appreciable difference. Much of the difference can be attributed to pilot experience. Low-time pilots experience more difficulties that higher-time pilots with night experience. In my view, night or day is safe, in general aviation airplanes or in airliners.

Q: Which part of a plane is the safest? Which shakes less during turbulence?

 A: There is not a “safest” location in the airplane. A number of studies have been done with various results. Seats located mid-wing will move slightly less than seats at the front or back of the airplane.

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