How safe is your plane?

Recent accidents have raised fears about flying. Simon Calder reveals the safety records of the major airlines

Air safety is an issue that rarely features in the decision about where to take a holiday. But last week's DC-9 crash in Mexico and the loss of the EgyptAir Boeing 767 en route from New York to Cairo a fortnight ago tend to focus attention on the kind of aircraft that will be taking you to your destination. Alarmingly, many tour operators are deliberately vague about the aircraft ­ and airlines ­ they use.

Air safety is an issue that rarely features in the decision about where to take a holiday. But last week's DC-9 crash in Mexico and the loss of the EgyptAir Boeing 767 en route from New York to Cairo a fortnight ago tend to focus attention on the kind of aircraft that will be taking you to your destination. Alarmingly, many tour operators are deliberately vague about the aircraft ­ and airlines ­ they use.

JMC promises a "new and genuinely different approach to holidays" ­ but the re-branded Thomas Cook tour operator goes for the usual imprecise small print. Prospective passengers are told that flights are scheduled to be operated "using A300, A320, Boeing 757, 747 and 737 aircraft". A number of people take a keen interest in the aircraft used, not least because some types of plane have a better safety record than others.

The 747, for example, has proved relatively safe, despite the terrorist attacks on Pan Am and Air India planes. Yet none of the airlines that JMC uses flies 747s. Several of them fly 767s, the same model as the doomed EgyptAir aircraft, as well as DC-10s and Airbus A330s. The A330 has a blemish-free safety record, unlike the DC-10 ­ but the Airbus has made only a small fraction of the number of flights. It also has two engines, which some passengers feel uneasy about.

Airlines, too, have vastly differing safety records. A good number ­ including JMC's in-house airline and Virgin Atlantic ­ have never suffered a crash. But anyone planning to fly to Cuba should be warned that the national airline, Cubana, has the worst safety record for any carrier for which reliable statistics exist.

Tour operators like to be vague because it gives them more flexibility. Brochures are printed anything up to 18 months before the departure date, yet the holiday company may finalise flight arrangements only a few months in advance. Most add a clause such as: "We reserve the right to substitute alternative carriers and aircraft types", in case at short notice another airline is used. For example, the Icelandic airline Air Atlanta is often called on to cover for holiday aircraft that "go technical". Fortunately, it is a while since British passengers faced the prospect of travelling on a Romanian-built Ilyushin 1-11 or a Soviet Yak-42.

HOW SAFE is your holiday flight? Information on "fatal events" involving civil aviation since 1970 is available on the normally reliable website AirSafe.com, which lists accident rates by airline and aircraft type.

A LIKELY STORY: "Slow flying aircraft. Central London-Central Manchester, three and a half hours by plane, two and a half hours by train."

This Virgin Trains advertisement is curious, to say the least. For a start, it implies that the centre of London is a platform at Euston station, and similarly that the centre of Manchester is a platform at Piccadilly station. That will come as a surprise to many residents of those cities, but is a necessary conclusion ­ Virgin's trains take exactly 2 hours 30 minutes between the two stations.

The second implication is that only a fool would dream of flying between the two cities, because it takes an hour longer than the train. The tiny print at the foot of the advertisement says the time is calculated by taking a taxi to Paddington station, the train to Heathrow, "minimum check-in time at airport for domestic flights", flight time, baggage reclaim and a taxi to the centre of Manchester.

Supposing you start from said platform at Euston at the same instant as the 5pm departs to Manchester. A cab to Paddington should get you to the Heathrow Express platform in time for the 5.25pm departure; the Tube would be even quicker. You arrive at the airport at 5.40pm, stroll to British Midland check-in and have plenty of time before the 6.20pm departure. It arrives at 7.15pm. As Piccadilly station is just a 15-minute cab ride from the airport, the necessary conclusion is that passengers have to wait an hour for their luggage. British Midland says, in fact, that its reclaim time at Manchester is 10 minutes at most.

The main thrust of the ad, of course, is that planes are a dismal way to travel, compared with Virgin Trains. Certainly, if one were on the platform at Euston needing to get to Manchester Piccadilly, it would be perverse to take a taxi, train, plane and taxi instead of just catching the train. But the assertion that air travel is so slow is an extraordinary one for a company that also runs two airlines ­ Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Express ­ to make.

A "COURTESY STOP" sounds an intriguing notion for a flight. The new World Sky Breaks brochure (tel: 0121-325 5501) promises that travellers to Ercan will make a courtesy stop in Turkey. What can that mean? Are passengers invited to stretch their legs, perhaps enjoying some tea and Turkish delight as a break from the long flight?

No. You are obliged to touch down in Istanbul or Antalya airport for reasons of international politics. Ercan is the airport for the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, the portion of the island recognised by no country other than Turkey. Non-stop flights from Britain are banned ­ hence the mandatory stop.

ANYONE HEADING for the official Republic of Cyprus should know that evidence in your passport of a visit to the Turkish portion could result in your being barred. Plenty of brochures warn that you may have to get a new passport.

But the Escapades brochure from Airtours goes one stage further in warning of the risk of exclusion: "Any passenger with an Israeli or Turkish Cypriot stamp who wishes to visit Cyprus should contact their local passport office as it may be necessary to obtain a supplement passport". With six flights a week between Tel Aviv and Larnaca, it sounds surprising that Cyprus should wish to exclude those with an Israeli stamp ­ and, thankfully, the Cyprus tourist office confirms that this is not the case.

The office also says that anyone with a stamp indicating a visit to the Turkish-occupied portion of the island is deemed to have used an illegal point of entry, and is therefore in theory subject to exclusion. In practice, though, the immigration official will ask your permission to cancel the offending stamp and, if you agree, allow you through.

Finally, it is worth noting that officials in Israel and Northern Cyprus routinely agree to apply the stamp to a separate piece of paper to avoid problems in the future.

Simon Calder, the senior travel editor of 'The Independent' welcomes a response from the companies mentioned here, and readers' comments about other tangled terms and conditions. Write to: Travel Desk, 'Independent on Sunday', 1 Canada Square, London E14 5DL; or e-mail: travel@independent.co.uk; or fax: 0171-293 2182.

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