On Tuesday night, we’re leaving Seattle on “China Airlines”:http://www.china-airlines.com/en/index.htm, heading to Taipei for a three-hour layover and on to Denpasar on Bali. Gay did all the travel reservations and I was out of the loop for the details like airlines, flight times, etc. But now that it’s coming up and because the flight from Seattle to Taipei is 14 hours, I started researching the airline to see how good the service is. Bad idea. Especially for someone who doesn’t like to fly.

Thanks to “AirSafe.com”:http://www.airsafe.com, I quickly learned that China Airlines (CAL) has had a “terrible safety record”:http://www.airsafe.com/events/airlines/taiwan.htm, the 6th least-safe airline in the world. In fact, of all the airlines in the world that have flown more than 750,000 flights, CAL, which flies 900,000 flights per year, is the least-safe airline in the world. They are three times more dangerous than North American and European airlines.

They’ve had four fatal crashes in the last 10 years: 1994, 1998, 1999 and 2002. The first three crashes were all due to pilot error. In “1994”:http://www.techfak.uni-bielefeld.de/~ladkin/nagoyarep/nagoya-top.html, “1998”:http://www.rvs.uni-bielefeld.de/publications/Incidents/DOCS/Research/Rvs/Misc/Additional/Reports/taipei/taipei.html and “1999”:http://edition.cnn.com/WORLD/asiapcf/9908/22/china.air.crash.04/ the pilots simply crashed while landing. The 1999 you may remember as the one where the plane ended up upside down but, miraculously, only three of the passengers were killed.

The 2002 crash was caused by an explosion in the fuel tank, the same thing that happened on “TWA Flight 800”:http://www.twa800.com/index.htm in 1996 off the coast of New York. Apparently, airlines typically kept the center fuel tank only partially filled to save money on fuel (lighter plane equals less fuel consumption) on shorter flights that required less fuel. A “bug” in the 747 causes a short in the electrical system to explode the tank, which obviously doesn’t end well. Boeing recommended against this practice of partially-filling the center tank after the 1996 TWA 800 crash, but China Airlines ignored this, causing the tragedy. Fortunately, we are flying the 747 on the long flight from Taipei to San Francisco, so they should have all tanks full.

Why so many problems? The airline is 71% owned by the Taiwanese government, which is usually a bad idea, and appears to be the root of their safety troubles, i.e., bureaucracy, no commercial need to change, etc. The government is “trying to make the airline more private”:http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/biz/archives/2004/05/03/2003153989 and did take steps in 1999, after two crashes, to improve its safety procedures by hiring Lufthansa to help. They didn’t follow Lufthansa’s recommendations and had their latest fatal accident in 2002 that was caused by the same problem that caused the November 2001 crash in New York and after Boeing made formal recommendations to airlines to avoid this problem.

All of these recent accidents were caused by admittedly poor standards and procedures that China, the country, is “trying to solve”:http://www.chinabusinessreview.com/public/0103/keck.html. So the question is: is China Airlines improving? No way to know, apparently, but “they set a record”:http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/en/doc/2004-01/15/content_299268.htm in safety recently. And China Airlines increases the number of passengers by 15% per year, which makes them the fastest-growing airline in the world.

And if you discount the 2002 crash and assume that this well-known problem with 747s can be easily-avoided, China Airlines may not be a cause of concern today. Of course, this is only if we can believe that they have better-trained pilots, have better maintenance practices and follow the proper safety procedures. The FAA seems to think things are much better today for the airlines of China. And “Epinions reviews”:http://www.epinions.com/trvl-Airlines-Asia_Pacific_ChinaAirliness/display_~reviews are favorable. So if things within China Airlines’ control are handled properly, that leaves freak accidents or malfunctions in the planes. So what about the planes?

We’re flying an Airbus A340 to Taipei, an Airbus A300 to Denpasar, an Airbus A300 back to Taipei, a 747 to San Francisco and a 737 to Seattle. The good news is that “the A340 has never had a fatality”:http://www.airsafe.com/events/models/a340.htm. It’s a “new aircraft”:http://flyaow.com/planes/340aircraftspecifications.htm, introduced in 1993, so all the planes are young for aircraft which is reassuring. And it is a popular plane so it has been getting tested in real-world use.

The Airbus A300 has had “nine events since 1976”:http://www.airsafe.com/events/models/airbus.htm but three of those are hijackings and one was accidentally “shot down”:http://www.wordiq.com/definition/Iran_Air_Flight_655 by the US Navy in 1988. So that leaves five A300 crashes to be concerned with. Four of those (including a China Airlines flight) were caused by pilot error. But the American Airlines crash in New York in November 2001 was apparently a mechanical problem. The plane took off too closely behind another plane and the rudder malfunctioned in its wake and it crashed into a Brooklyn neighborhood.

The Boeing “747”:http://www.airsafe.com/events/models/boeing.htm and “737”:http://www.airsafe.com/events/models/b737.htm both have quite a few “events” in their histories. In fact, the 737 is Boeing’s most dangerous plane. But it’s also a very popular plane.

Anyway…. I’m not terribly happy that we’re going to a country with a “State Department Travel Warning”:http://travel.state.gov/travel/indonesia_warning.html about it and I’m not happy that we’re flying on an airline with a poor safety record. But I am looking forward to the first vacation we’ve had in a loooong time.