Emergency workers remove the wreckage of crashed TransAsia Airways flight GE222 on the island of Penghu, Taiwan on July 24, 2014. / Wally Santana, AP
A spate of foreign-airline catastrophes this year confirmed suspicions that boarding a plane in a developing country was riskier than flying in the U.S. Even so, experts say, fliers need not worry because crashes are still extremely rare.
After fatal crashes in Mali, Taiwan and Iran, safety experts acknowledge that airlines and regulators in developing countries might not follow all standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a branch of the United Nations. The result of such lapses range from faulty landing gear that can simply be a scary nuisance to the worst-case scenario: fatal crashes.
Michael Barr, who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California, said the breakdown comes in safety enforcement, either for lack of training for regulators or because political cronies are appointed to foreign versions of the Federal Aviation Administration.
"What they are is paper tigers," Barr said of lax foreign regulators.
Yet the lax regulations and maintenance breakdowns in these countries don't result in dramatically higher crash rates. Indeed, the risk of dying in an airline crash remains very small, according to statisticians and insurers.
Arnold Barnett, a professor of statistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calculated the risk from 2008 through July 25, 2014, as one death in 1 million flights that originate or end in developing countries. For comparison, first-world countries have one death in 23.9 million flights.
"Any given flight anywhere is really pretty safe," Barnett said. But in the USA, "if you see a kid in the airport, that kid is more likely to become president than to perish on the forthcoming flight, or more likely to win the Nobel Prize in physics or an Olympic gold medal."
CRASHES CHANGE THE OPTICS
The spotlight was shined on foreign airlines after three crashes in July and August killed a total of 203 people.
TransAsia Airways Flight 222 crashed July 23 in bad weather in Taiwan. Air Algerie Flight 5017 crashed July 24 in Mali. And Sepahan Air Flight 5915 crashed after a reported engine failure Aug. 10 while taking off in Iran.
In addition, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing March 8 and is presumed crashed with 239 people aboard. Malaysia Flight 17 was shot down July 17 over eastern Ukraine by pro-Russia separatists, killing 298.
Meanwhile, the last fatal passenger-airline crash in the United States was July 6, 2013, when Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed while landing in San Francisco. Investigators blamed pilot error and confusion about the plane's autothrottle for that incident, which killed three people and injured nearly 200.
But the last domestic passenger-airline crash in the United States occurred on Feb. 12, 2009, when a Colgan Air turboprop went down in a snowstorm near Buffalo, killing 50 people. The crash was blamed on pilot fatigue and lack of training.
In simple terms, North America and Western Europe have the best records - and Africa the worst, said Paul Hayes, director of air safety and insurance for Ascend, a global aviation consultancy. But he points out that Africa is improving and has the same accident rate as Europe did during the 1970s.
"Despite the recent spate of accidents, I believe that airline safety is continuing to improve and that the system has never been safer," Hayes said.
TransAsia's then-president resigned after the Taiwan crash, which is still under investigation. But the airline said it had one of the best safety records in the industry during the last decade and meets international standards.
"As the tragedy of (the crash) shows, constant vigilance is required, regardless of the root causes of an accident," the airline said in a statement. "A single event should not be a cause for loss of confidence in the safety of Taiwanese airlines."
Foreign airlines suffer a variety of problems. The Aviation Safety Network, part of the industry-backed Flight Safety Foundation, tracks accidents worldwide to learn lessons and spot patterns.
Among incidents this year:
â?¢A Saudi Arabian Airlines flight landing in Medina in January came to rest on the 767's right engine after the main landing gear failed to deploy.
â?¢An Onur Air flight in March had an engine fire while landing in Trabzon, Turkey, but the Airbus 321 was evacuated without injuries.
â?¢The nose gear of a Scat Airlines 737 failed to deploy for a landing in Astana, Kazakhstan, in April, so the plane landed on foam; passengers suffered only minor injuries.
â?¢A Malaysia flight's tire blew while taking off from Kuala Lumpur in April, and the 737 returned safely to the airport.
Barr, the USC safety instructor, said even equipped with the best planes from Boeing or Airbus, airlines still must provide routine maintenance and highly trained crews to operate safely.
"It doesn't matter how good the plane is if you give it to a bunch of mechanics who don't know what to do or to a bunch of pilots who fall asleep in the cockpit," said Barr..
Airlines also occasionally face the dangers of traveling in or near military conflict zones, even though incidents like Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 getting shot down over Ukraine are highly unusual. A U.S. cruiser mistakenly shot down an Iran Air flight in 1988, believing the jet was attacking the ship. A Soviet fighter downed Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983 when it strayed over Soviet air space.
Empty airliners were damaged by rockets and gunfire at Baghdad airport in January, Karachi airport in June and Tripoli airport in July.
Airlines typically avoid such combat zones, and governments regularly issue warnings about regions to avoid.
ICAO, the U.N. organization, and the International Air Transport Association, which represents 240 airlines worldwide, are developing recommendations for governments to share information better about where flights are at risk from military threats.
To help travelers gauge the safety of foreign airlines, the U.S. and European Union separately compile lists of warnings.
Out of thousands of airlines worldwide, Europe bans about 300 airlines from the continent and puts restrictions on another dozen airlines. The ban sometimes applies to all airlines from a country, including all from Afghanistan and Zambia.
IATA, the airline trade group, contends that "naming and shaming" airlines doesn't improve safety in governments and airlines that need assistance. The group said targeted airlines don't even know why they made the list or what steps are needed to get off.
"The banned list is not transparent and it is not an effective way to improve safety," said Tony Tyler, IATA's CEO.
The Federal Aviation Administration rates other countries for their aviation regulations. Airlines from 80 countries labeled Category 1 are allowed to fly in the United States. But airlines from nine countries, including India and Indonesia, now labeled Category 2, are prevented from adding flights until they improve oversight of airlines. Airlines from other countries, such as Iran or Iraq, aren't allowed at all.
Among the airlines that have experienced recent crashes, Algerian and Iranian airlines aren't allowed to fly to the USA. But Taiwan and Malaysian are welcome.
WORKING TO IMPROVE
India illustrates the difficulty of maintaining top marks. The country was upgraded to Category 1 in 1997 but dropped back to Category 2 in January because of FAA concerns about technical expertise, training, record-keeping or inspections.
One of the latest problems was aboard a Jet Airways flight in August from Mumbai to Brussels that plunged 5,000 feet over Turkey with one pilot asleep and the other busy with an iPad. Nobody was injured.
IndiGo Airlines had three incidents this year with Airbus A320 brakes smoking while landing. Smoke and fire erupted from the brake assembly during a landing at Katmandu, Nepal, in March. Another flight was evacuated by emergency chutes in Mumbai in August because of thick smoke from the left wheels. And Delhi Airport evacuated a taxiway in August because of dense smoke from another flight's brake assembly.
Sometimes the results are absurd, if also scary. In October 2012, one of two nose wheels fell off an Air India flight taking off from Silchar, but the 767 was able to land safely in Guwahati.
After the FAA lowered India's status in January, the country's directorate general of civil aviation hired 75 inspectors and pledged a more rigorous inspection program. The agency released a report in July documenting 2,601 audits, and planned and unplanned inspections during the first half of the year. The figure was more than a full year of inspections in 2012 and 2013.
Barr the USC safety instructor, said the key for all airlines and regulators to fly safely is to follow the rules that have been developed by international consensus.
"If they follow the rules, they would be top level," he said.
Read the original story: Yes, some foreign flights are riskier - but don't panic