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U.S. And Foreign Airlines: Dangerous Liaisons?

Government: AVIATION


U.S. airlines have ties with some questionable carriers

Few industries can match the airlines for global reach. Today, there are 340 nondomestic carriers flying in and out of America's cities. And major U.S. airlines are rapidly joining with foreign ones to serve an exploding market in international business travel. One problem: Few passengers realize that overseas airlines operating in the U.S. don't have to meet the strict safety standards that American carriers do. And the Federal Aviation Administration hasn't yet reviewed the civil aviation systems of almost half the 103 nations with carriers flying here.

A case in point: Taiwan's China Airlines Ltd. With 5.2 fatal accidents for every 1 million flights, 323 passengers have died on CAL flights since 1989 (based on 1982-1992 data, the latest available), according to the International Airline Passengers Assn. That puts it with Korean Air Lines, Thai Airways, Colombia's Avianca, and Air India as having among the worst safety records. All have accident rates at least 45 times as high as the world's safest carriers and six times the average rate of America's major carriers, according to IAPA. Yet all are allowed to operate in the U.S., even though they receive scant scrutiny from the FAA.

TIT FOR TAT. Officials at CAL stress they are working with U.S. officials to improve the airline's pilot training. "We are not satisfied with our safety record in our country," concedes Lee Wan-lee, a spokesman for Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration. "I think our safety record will improve."

It's not that the FAA doesn't recognize a growing global regulatory problem. In 1991, the agency launched an aggressive review of foreign civil aviation safety programs. The agency does not assess foreign carriers directly, since it has little jurisdiction over them. Instead, in exchange for allowing another country's carriers to retain U.S. landing rights, countries must show American officials their systems either meet or are moving toward meeting minimum safety standards set by the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization. But since ICAO does not monitor airline safety, the FAA's program is the first time a consistent effort has been made to assess other nations' aviation safety. "Before this, an accident had to happen before the FAA took a look," says William D. Waldock, president of System Safety Inc., an aviation-safety consulting firm in Prescott, Ariz. Crows Barry L. Valentine, the FAA's assistant administrator for policy, planning, and international aviation: "This has been one of our success stories."

FAA inspections of foreign aviation authorities have led U.S. officials to bar airlines of Haiti and Surinam from U.S. airspace and to put restrictions on carriers from Guatemala, Turkey, and the Philippines. But the FAA effort has had its costs, too. "These negotiations can be extremely sensitive diplomatically," says Valentine. Contentious and time-consuming, FAA confrontations with countries such as Colombia and Venezuela have strained relations with the U.S.

A more troubling result: Five years after its program began, the FAA still hasn't gotten around to verifying the safety standards of 46 of the 103 countries with airlines operating in the U.S., including those of Russia and China. Taiwan is due for an FAA review in October. Agency officials decline to disclose their schedule for reviewing other countries' authorities.

Valentine asserts that the FAA intends to complete all its assessments by the end of the year. "It's a top priority," he says. But critics scoff that an agency that took five years to review 57 nations cannot manage in five months to complete the remaining 46. After all, the FAA--its funding frozen by Capitol Hill and still in the midst of wrenching internal turmoil--is being forced to focus its already stretched resources on improving domestic air safety. Much of the pressure stems from the May 11 crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Everglades. "It's difficult to say what the FAA's priorities will be," says Marty G. Salfen, senior vice-president at IAPA.

DEALS GALORE. In the meantime, CAL and American Airlines Inc. are putting the final touches on a code-sharing agreement. The deal, typical of such arrangements, would make American and CAL appear as a single carrier to travel agents booking flights on computerized reservation systems. The agreement would also let CAL fly American passengers between Taipei and Los Angeles and San Francisco, with American connecting CAL passengers to some other U.S. cities. Continental Airlines Inc. announced a similar arrangement with CAL in January. Both "code shares" await U.S. approval. Consumer advocates complain that passengers can be confused by these alliances, unaware also that connecting flights abroad may be with a foreign airline. Even if they are aware, they may not know the safety record of the foreign carrier.

"Delta and American are turning over their good names and fortunes to some of the most dangerous airlines in the world," charges David S. Stempler, president of Washington's AirTrav Advisors, a passenger watchdog group. Stempler spearheaded the IAPA review of foreign airline performance, which yielded the numbers the FAA relies on when consumers call the agency for such information. Stempler notes that American's access to booming Asian markets is severely limited under terms of the existing U.S. air treaty with Japan, a key gateway. So, Stempler asserts, "American is doing whatever it can to get access to Asia."

American Airlines declined comment. But Continental says the Taiwan carrier has greatly improved its maintenance and pilot training and that CAL will use nearly new planes on the pending code-shared routes. "It's a totally different company than when those accidents occurred," says a Continental spokesman.

No question, the deals are proliferating. Delta Air Lines Inc., for example, has signed a joint venture with Korean Air, which also has had 5.2 fatal accidents per 1 million flights. United Airlines Inc. recently received approval from the Transportation Dept. to join forces with Thai Airways, which the IAPA says has a fatality rate of 6.1 fatal accidents per 1 million flights. American Airlines has teamed up with Poland's LOT to fly passengers from Chicago and New York to Warsaw starting in mid-September; the FAA has restricted the Polish airline to just a few U.S. cities because of questions about Poland's oversight of its air system.

KEEPING MUM. While acknowledging that international travel is always a "major concern," FAA officials stress that air travel remains the safest form of transportation in the world, even under less stringent international standards. Says Jeffrey N. Shane, a lawyer representing CAL who is also a former assistant secretary for international aviation at the Transportation Dept.: "The statistical probabilities of anyone coming to grief" are far less on a plane than on any other mode of transport.

Still, the FAA won't disclose to consumers any details about the failings of overseas carriers, complains Ivan Michael Schaeffer, CEO of Woodside Travel Trust, a huge global business-travel management company. "The FAA requires that airlines' on-time performance is available to passengers," Schaeffer says. "Why not safety information on foreign carriers?"

Airline executives defend the new alliances, saying they will help weaker airlines achieve higher standards of safety, while providing fliers with greater access to foreign lands. "You don't sign a code-share agreement with an airline you don't believe is safe," insists United CEO Gerald Greenwald.

But neither the FAA nor the State Dept. offers even rudimentary safety data on specific foreign carriers for the traveling public, Schaeffer complains. That means many of the 19.4 million U.S. passengers flying overseas this year must base their decisions on little more than a hunch. And that could make for a rough ride.By Christina Del Valle, with Stan Crock in Washington and Jonathan Moore in TaipeiReturn to top

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