A recent system of ranking commercial airlines devised by the Air Transport Rating Agency (ATRA), and based largely on safety criteria, radically overhauls the perceived order of airline superiority. In fact, a grand total of none of the ten best airlines according to the 2011 Skytrax awards, which reflect customer service, feature in ATRA's safety top ten.

ATRA's system uses 15 criteria which include the number of accidents an airline has experienced in the prior ten years, the availability of pilot-training facilities and simulators, age and mileage of the active fleet, in-house maintenance, and the number of aircraft considered "at risk".

With 2009 statistics across all criteria plugged into its algorithms, ATRA came up with its "holistic safety rating" for each airline. In August, based on these ratings, it published its ten best airlines of 2011 (in alphabetical order):

  • Air France - KLM
  • AMR Corporation (American Airlines, American Eagle)
  • British Airways
  • Continental Airlines
  • Delta Airlines
  • Japan Airlines
  • Lufthansa
  • Southwest Airlines
  • United Airlines
  • US Airways

It's a stark contrast to the Skytrax top ten:

  • Qatar Airways
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Asiana Airlines
  • Cathay Pacific Airways
  • Thai Airways International
  • Etihad Airways
  • Air New Zealand
  • Qantas Airways
  • Turkish Airlines
  • Emirates

Though ATRA's precise methodology seems to be confidential, it supposedly employs multidimensional analysis which, it claims, is similar in nature to that used by the World Health Organization to assess epidemic risks and immunization priorities.

Of course, without knowing precisely how the safety rating is calculated, and without seeing the ratings themselves, it would be ludicrous to conclude that any airline not in ATRA's list is somehow unsafe. It is not clear, for instance, if the accident criterion takes into account whether or not the airline was in any way at fault; or even whether air accidents are given greater weighting than, say, the number of employees at an airline - one of the system's more abstract considerations.

Newly formed this year, ATRA is not the first organization to assess airlines on safety grounds. Since 2006 the European Union has maintained a list of airlines banned from landing at airports within the EU. It's a list that stands nearly 300-strong, and composed mainly of airlines of which you are unlikely to have heard.

Ultimately, any information that helps passengers makes more informed choices should be welcomed, but one can't help wishing that ATRA had published a full set of ratings for us to see just how far behind the trailing pack are; and who, if anyone, languishes at the bottom of the safety ranks. Better still would be the additional publication of its methodology - only then would passengers be in a position to judge whether they're forgoing the complimentary peanuts for rational reasons of safety, or merely because a training simulator somewhere needs an antivirus software update. In the meantime, the choice of which list, if either, to grant credence to is down to the individual passenger.

Sources: ATRA (PDF link), Sydney Morning Herald