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After Germanwings: Are the Budget Airlines Less Safe than the Others?

 

On Thursday morning on ABC's The View, Michelle Collins, one of the show's revolving co-hosts, suggested that because the European cut-price airlines are tough on customers with fees and optional pricing, then it's possible that attitude contributed to the pilot-initiated crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps.

"I have to say this airline, Germanwings, they're a budget airline in Europe, and Europe has these budget airlines where it's, like, $9. You can fly from London to Rome for ten bucks," Collins said. "I have flown on these airlines before and they are scary. They treat their customers like cattle... I wonder how they treat their employees if they're treating their customer as badly."

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I don't suggest you take your education on world events from comedians who are just trying to fill time on the daytime television, but her attitude is likely representative of the concerns of millions of people.

So let's look at some facts. Are the budget airlines unsafe simply because they're budget?

According to the International Air Transport Association says that in Europe, the legacy carriers and the upstart budget airlines share the standards. There are laws governing pilot training, aircraft maintenance, and staff shifts.

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Another thing to consider: The budget airlines, as relatively new entrants to the market, often have newer aircraft than their established rivals.

In America, the budget carrier of record is Southwest Airlines, which has never lost a jet. Neither have easyJet or Ryanair, the two top European players. (Germanwings had only a 5% share of the market, but it's worth noting that its parent company is the established carrier Lufthansa.)

The co-pilot under suspicion of having crashed the Germanwings plane had gone through mental health training and had no links to terrorism—so background checks had been conducted. There were no warning signs on social media. 

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The IATA says that rather than thinking about budget vs. established, we ought to be thinking in terms of geography, largely because safety standards are looser in other regions of the globe. Even in Africa, though, the place with the worst record, for every million flights, only 6.83 end in disaster.  In Russia, another place with looser standards than those in North America or Europe, 2.74 jets per million are lost. 

In Europe, only 0.24 flights per million are lost, and in North America, the number is a twitch lower: 0.20 per million.

"No budget airline is going to skimp on safety," industry analyst Henry Harteveldt told USA Today. "If you don't have a safe airline, then you don't have an airline. Period."

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By all accounts so far, the Germanwings incident was a one-off that had nothing to do with the fact it happened on a budget airline.

So no, budget airlines are not more dangerous than legacy carriers. They are possibly more irritating, but let's not allow a cultural bias against value-priced commercial products paint an incorrect portrait of their safety.

If you want to continue to save money on travel, you are cleared for takeoff.

 

Jason Cochran (@JasCochran, www.jasoncochran.com) is Editor of Frommers.com.

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Photo credit: 

Aero Icarus/Flickr

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