Travel: Cuba's airline has a `fatal event rate' 60 times higher than BA

AN AIRLINE that takes off from Britain four times a week has just become, statistically, one of the most dangerous airlines in the world.

Air safety, and in particular the relative risks of flying on individual airlines, is of critical importance to travellers. This week Holiday Which? pointed out the stresses on air traffic control, and the Government's failure to publish the results of its safety checks on airlines. But a "league table" of flying risks already exists. As well as details of presidential indiscretions, the Internet contains information that puts the safety record of most of the world's airlines in sharp perspective.

The website is a privately compiled one: It is safe to assume that the very worst carriers do not appear here, since the scary accident rates for some airlines in China and the former Soviet Union are not published. But among those for which statistics are available, one airline serving Gatwick and Manchester falls well below the rest in its safety record: Cubana, the national airline for Cuba.

Here's how that conclusion is reached. The compilers count each "fatal event" that an airline has incurred since 1 January 1970. This is a reasonable starting-point, since it was when the Boeing 747 entered service in significant numbers and therefore can be said to mark the moment mass travel by jet aircraft began.

A "fatal event" includes anything from a single death in flight for reasons other than natural causes, to the total loss of an aircraft and passengers, such as the Swissair disaster off Nova Scotia 10 days ago. As such, it is a coarse indicator of risk. As the compilers point out: "These listed fatal event rates are an estimate of historical risk and not an estimate or prediction of future performance."

The statistics do not break down the cause of accidents, which may be beyond the control of the airline. A 1976 mid-air collision near Zagreb involving a BA Trident, for example, is believed to have been caused by Yugoslav air traffic control. At least one of Cubana's crashes was the result of a terrorist bomb planted by anti-Castro terrorists.

Nevertheless, many air travellers would prefer to know whether their chosen airline has crashed never, rarely or often.

"Often", when applied to air accidents, is thankfully a relative term. Out of more than 6 million flights since 1970, British Airways has suffered two "fatal events": the Trident collision near Zagreb in 1976 in which 63 people died, and the engine fire on a Boeing 737 at Manchester airport nine years later, when 55 perished. Other leading European airlines, such as Lufthansa, Alitalia, Air France and Swissair, experience them rather more frequently - about one in a million flights for the latter two.

The biggest US airlines suffer one fatal event every 2 or 3 million flights, on average, with the safety star billing going to Southwest Airlines - which has flown more than 6 million flights without a fatal accident - making it easily the safest airline in the world.

Many others have avoided fatal accidents since 1970. Airlines with 1 million safe flights or more include Aer Lingus, SAS, Finnair and Sabena, plus charter carriers such as Britannia.

It is the other end of the spectrum that may alarm air travellers. In Ecuador a fortnight ago, an ageing Russian-built aircraft crashed on its third attempt to take off from Quito, killing 69 aboard and nine on the ground. The plane was a Tupolev operated by Cubana. The crash was the airline's sixth since 1970. In the awful arithmetic of disaster, it means one of the airline's planes has crashed for every 55,000 take-offs.

Despite its unfortunate record, flying on Cubana is still safer than many other modes of transport. That is no mere platitude; to demonstrate my faith in the relative safety of air travel, I have just bought a ticket on Cubana, for a Christmas holiday in Havana.

Now that you know the relative safety records, though, you may prefer to postpone your trip to the Caribbean's largest island until British Airways begins flying to Havana next spring. Cubana has a fatal event rate 60 times that of BA.

THE AVIATION industry is reticent about safety. So I was surprised to receive yesterday a press release from the Greek tourist office headed "Greece boasts worlds' safest airports".

The justification for this claim was a quote from Costa Pereira, general secretary of the International Civil Aviation Organization, that "We have received no official complaint concerning the safeness of Greek airports".

A British pilot of my acquaintance spluttered into his coffee when I read the release over to him.

"From my point of view", he responded diplomatically, "I don't regard Athens as one of the safest airports in the world".