Which type of public air-transport service is safest–mainline, regional or low-cost carrier (LCC)? It might be a surprise, given possible assumptions about the perceived priorities at the various carrier types, that a recent report suggests the LCCs are safest.
A study of 13 U.S. airlines’ safety and punctuality during the period between 2000 and 2004 (excluding events on Sept. 11, 2001) showed LCCs demonstrating a better safety record than their mainline and regional counterparts, according to San Jose State University aviation director Professor Triant Flouris, a speaker at the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) European safety seminar in Athens, Greece.
Flouris emphasized that not all low-fare airlines follow the LCC business model and noted that public perceptions that LCCs focus on bottom-line costs could have a negative effect on internal processes such as safety.
Study results showed the LCCs performing best in accident and incident rates, as well as in on-time performance and schedule compliance. Regional operators scored better than mainline carriers for accident and incident rates and schedule compliance but trailed slightly on punctuality.
Flouris and fellow researcher Air Canada technical audits manager Felipe Reyer considered safety performance as indicated by accident and incident rates per million departures. (They included incidents in the scope of the study because they can reflect the effectiveness of escape or control systems that airlines have put in place.)
The researchers also studied on-time performance, which involves strategic selection of airports, routes and ground handlers; and schedule compliance, which reflects the ability to manage internal processes. The research assumed that the subject airlines faced the same operational conditions and, therefore, hazard exposure.
The 13 carriers in the study were chosen for the availability of operational and safety data. The researchers then grouped them according to mainline, regional or LCC status. Flouris asserted that each group exhibited different strategic and organizational behavior. The study included the five mainline operators and four regionals with the most departures, as well as the top four LCCs (as defined by the FAA).
The researchers actually deemed two of the latter to be “low-fare airlines” rather than low-cost carriers; they contend that there are only two “true LCCs in the U.S.” (Charter airlines were excluded because they operate under different regulations and available data was unsatisfactory. Researchers also excluded non-scheduled services by the target operators.)
LCC accident and incident rates (2.38 and 13.91 per million departures, respectively) were less than half those of mainline operators (4.98 and 31.29 per million departures, respectively), although the study concedes that one LCC recorded 13 accidents and almost 20 incidents per million departures. Regional airlines scored 3.91 and 22.88 per million departures, respectively.
The LCCs recorded almost 82.5 percent punctuality, compared with the other two groups’ performance of around 80 percent. They also achieved a near 99.5-percent schedule compliance rate during the five-year period. During the same time mainliners and regionals achieved a schedule compliance rate of nearly 98 percent.
In analyzing factors that might have contributed to the results, Flouris suggested LCCs might achieve better organizational performance than competing airline groups due to strategic choices and their cultures. The former include extended fleet utilization (12 or more hours per day) and use of a single type of “third generation” jetliners (Boeing 737-600/700/800s or Airbus A320 series).
“Newer aircraft are less prone to accidents,” said Flouris. Given that flight-crew-related events account for 54 percent of accidents, he speculated that single-type fleets might be safer because they avoid training transitions between different designs. LCCs’ strategy in using less-congested airports, simpler organizational structures and short turnaround times may contribute to punctuality, concluded Flouris.