Amid all the recent headlines about aviation safety lapses and a troubling rise in close calls, it’s easy to forget that commercial air travel has never been safer.
In fact, fatal crashes on a commercial jet plane are extremely rare, thanks in large part to major innovations in aircraft technology and crew training over the years (often prompted by major accidents, such as TWA 800 and Air France 447). In 2022, there were only five fatal accidents among 32.2 million flights, down from seven in 2021 and an improvement on the five-year average for 2018 through 2022, which was also seven, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
When compared with driving, air travel is hands down the safer way to get from point A to point B. In 2022, while there were 158 fatalities from airplane crashes globally, there were nearly 43,000 fatalities resulting from road accidents in the United States alone.
“Flying is among the safest activities in which a person can engage,” stated IATA director general Willie Walsh. He added, “But even though the risk of flying is exceptionally low, it is not risk-free. Careful analysis of the trends that are emerging even at these very high levels of safety is what will make flying even safer.”
For instance, not all airlines and governments have the same high level of vigilance when it comes to safety practices. Walsh cited turboprop operations in Africa and Latin America as a special area of concern.
Experts say that having a set of strong regulations in place is essential. “Countries that have serious government oversight, and whose airlines closely monitor pilot performance and maintenance for problems that occur, have an accident rate that is outstanding,” says John Goglia, an aviation consultant and former member of the National Transportation Safety Board.
For those who want to ensure they’re flying with the safest carrier, here’s how the world’s airlines stack up.
How the world’s safest airlines are ranked
Each year, the Australian aviation safety and product review site, AirlineRatings.com, ranks the world’s safest airlines based on a seven-point rating system. The company monitors 385 airlines worldwide and its methodology takes into account factors that include accidents that have occurred in the past five years, serious incidents (those with the potential for a catastrophic outcome) in the past two years, public and private safety audits, and the age of the fleet. A carrier’s ranking also considers the number of passengers flown and the number of sectors (each takeoff and landing), which tends to favor airlines that operate a high proportion of long-haul flights.
“All airlines have incidents every day, and many are aircraft or engine manufacturing problems, not airline operational problems. It is how the flight crew handles these incidents that determine a good airline from an unsafe one,” Geoffrey Thomas, editor in chief of AirlineRatings.com, said in releasing the 2023 list earlier this year.
In 2023, the world’s safest airlines ranking is once again topped by Australian flag carrier Qantas (which ranked No. 1 in seven out of the past nine years—the rankings were first released in 2013) and Air New Zealand, another perennial top-ranked carrier. Of the top 20, 5 are major U.S. airlines, with the rest hailing from Western Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
The world’s 10 safest airlines
Qantas Airlines—the name is an acronym for Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service—was founded on November 16, 1920, in Queensland, Australia. And in the jet age it has had an enviable, virtually accident-free record, earning it the “world’s safest airline” crown year after year, a stat that became widely known due to the movie Rain Man (in which Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic savant, Raymond Babbitt, who cites Qantas as the safest airline to justify his refusal to fly any other). The airline’s fleet consists of 125 aircraft with an average age of around 12 years—the global average is currently about 16 years.
2. Air New Zealand
The Kiwi flag carrier has held on to its position at the top of the list, not just for its exemplary safety record but also because it operates a high proportion of ultra-long flights, including the nonstop New York–Auckland flights it launched earlier this year. The airline started in 1947 as an operator of seaplanes to Australia; the government transformed it into its national airline in the 1960s. It flies to 22 domestic destinations and 26 international destinations in more than 15 countries.
3. Etihad Airways
Abu Dhabi–based Etihad Airways is one of the younger airlines on the list; founded in 2003, it currently flies to more than 80 destinations on five continents. The airline operates 90 aircraft, with an average age of seven years; it’s also known for its luxurious business- and first-class cabins, including separate “apartments.”
4. Qatar Airways
Doha-based Qatar Airways is, like other carriers of neighboring Gulf states, known for its long-haul flights, such as its 16.5-hour nonstop to Houston from Doha. It was founded in 1993 and operates 255 aircraft to 160 destinations, with what it claims is one of the world’s youngest fleets with an average age of around five years.
5. Singapore Airlines
Singapore is known for the high quality of its inflight service—the carrier routinely wins “world’s best airline” in passenger surveys, so it’s no surprise it would be ranked highly where safety practices are concerned, too. Founded in 1972, it flies 152 aircraft with an average age of around seven years to 75 destinations. Its network includes the world’s longest route, New York to Singapore, which currently holds the title with 18.5 hours of flying time.
6. TAP Air Portugal
The Portuguese flag carrier (TAP stands for “Transportes Aeroes Portugueses”) debuted 77 years ago, connecting its home country with far-flung nations, including former colonial outposts in Brazil, Mozambique, and elsewhere. It now flies to more than 80 destinations worldwide, via a mix of 84 narrow- and wide-bodied aircraft with an average age of 11.5 years.
With its monster hub in Dubai and the world’s largest fleet of Airbus A380s, including 100 double-decker wide-bodies, Emirates is a dominant player in the long-distance league. It also operates 134 Boeing 777s, more than any other scheduled airline. The average age of its entire fleet is only about nine years. Founded in 1985, Emirates flies to 133 destinations on six continents.
8. Alaska Airlines
From its humble beginnings 91 years ago as an Anchorage-based puddle jumper named McGee Airways, Alaska Airlines has morphed into the fifth largest carrier in the USA following its 2016 acquisition of Virgin America. The airline has continued to modernize and update its fleet, which includes 221 Boeing 737s with an average age of 9.8 years and a smaller number of Embraer 175s that are less than five years old on average. It is the highest ranked U.S. airline on the global airline safety ratings list.
9. EVA Air
Taiwan’s international airline has earned a loyal following for its reliability, customer service, and, of course, its livery featuring Hello Kitty and other eye-catching cartoon characters. Founded in 1989, it has 86 planes with an average age of 8.5 years.
10. Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia
These two carriers share the Virgin brand but otherwise have little in common: Virgin Atlantic is known for its scarlet-hued planes and hip vibe, and it operates a long-distance network out of the U.K. with a wide-body fleet of Airbus and Boeing models with an average aircraft age of just under seven years. Following a pandemic-era reorganization, Virgin Australia now operates a fleet of narrow-body jets, mostly 737-800s, that average around 11.5 years on a largely domestic route system.
The remaining safest airlines in the world
Beyond the top 10 safest airlines in the world listed above, here are the airlines that round out the top 20 list.
11. Cathay Pacific Airways
12. Hawaiian Airlines
14. United Airlines
15. Lufthansa Group (Lufthansa, Austrian, Brussels, Swiss)
17. British Airways
19. American Airlines
20. Delta Air Lines