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How do you know if an overseas airline is safe?

It's no secret that Australia is a world leader in air safety. Our flagship carrier, Qantas, has been the world's safest airline for decades. No major carrier has crashed a jet on our shores.

But the story can be very different overseas, and navigating the range of smaller local and budget airlines can be daunting – especially for those who (like 70 per cent of the population) find flying frightening, despite the fact it is actually a very safe form of travel.

Questions have been raised about Lion Air plane’s technical problems.Credit:AP

The Lion Air crash in Indonesia that killed all 189 passengers and crew on Monday has renewed concerns about the safety of air travel around Australia's northern neighbour – and other countries with a less than perfect air safety record.

The Australian government has even taken the unprecedented step of banning government officials and contractors from travelling with Lion Air or its subsidiaries until an investigation into the cause of the crash is completed.

Despite this move, Australia's travel advice and consular service Smartraveller tweeted that Australians should "make their own decisions" on airlines.
So how do you make a safe choice?

While the Australian government does not provide information on the safety of individual airlines, there are a number of ways to find out whether a particular airline passes muster.

For airlines that fly into Australia, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) grants approval based on the safety of the airline's country of origin as well as its own historical safety record.

CASA spokesman Peter Gibson said any foreign airline that has approval to fly to Australia meets the required and applicable safety standards, and "travellers can be assured the airline has been carefully assessed by CASA and is monitored by CASA".
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Lion Air does not fly to Australia, but two of its subsidiaries do: Batik Air and and Malindo Air.

Although government employees are banned from using these airlines, Mr Gibson said there is no change to their status at this point. "CASA is watching developments closely and maintaining an active program of spot checks and review. Any information relevant to their operations will be carefully assessed and acted on appropriately," he said.
International standards

For airlines that don't fly to Australia, the European Union provides an indication of the worst offenders. The EU's air safety list bans, restricts and approves global airlines for flying across EU airspace. Lion Air was banned from the list along with all Indonesian airlines in 2007 when the country's air safety record was particularly poor, but it was allowed back in 2016.

Other organisations with safety standards are the UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) which carry out audits of countries and airlines respectively.

A particularly useful tool for travellers can also be found on the Airline Ratings website, which provides a seven-star rating for airlines based on several criteria, including presence on the EU blacklist, fatal incidents in the past 10 years, and performance in ICAO and IATA audits.

Lion Air held seven stars until Monday's crash. It now has six.

Geoffrey Thomas, the website's managing director, told Fairfax Media that despite Lion Air's poor reputation from its past safety record, Monday's crash "came out of left field".

The airline's safety has "recently improved significantly" with its last fatal incident in 2004, and it passed an IATA safety audit last year, he said.

At six stars, Lion Air now has the same safety rating as Air France, which had a fatal crash in 2009.

Mr Thomas said it's impossible to guarantee safety, but the seven-star system is a good guide.

"The reality is … people know the Volvo is the safest car to drive but it doesn’t mean you won’t get killed in one," he said.

The other reality, he said, is that flying remains "incredibly safe" and while air disasters like this latest Lion Air incident are horrific, they aren't necessarily a true reflection of the safety of an airline or the broader industry.
Jenny Noyes

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