The wreckage of a Sudan Airways passenger jet that crashed at the Khartoum International Airport late Tuesday night. [EPA/Sudan TV]

On Tuesday, a passenger plane carrying 217 people burst into flames as it hit the runway in bad weather at Khartoum International Airport in Sudan. The fire, which rapidly consumed the Airbus A310, was caused by an explosion in one of the engines. Fortunately, at least 123 passengers and crew members survived. On the same day in Kenya, six people were killed in a plane crash near the Maasai Mara game reserve. The deceased included two government ministers. That crash could be weather related. 

Since the New Year, there have been other crashes across the continent that have taken scores of lives. On May 2nd, a plane carrying a military delegation that included South Sudan’s defense minister crashed after experiencing engine failure. Twenty-two people were killed. On April 15th, forty people were killed when a DC-9 skidded off the runway in Goma, DRC while attempting takeoff. On January 19, eleven people died in Angola when a privately-owned aircraft crashed into mountains. 

That’s a lot of accidents and a high number of fatalities in a small period of time. Is this a handful of bad air carriers with outdated equipment and a disregard for safety or should people flying in Africa be concerned? I decided to try and find out. 

The International Air Transport Association contends that, “African safety has improved, but the accident rate is still nearly six times the global average.” The IATA cites some reasons for this poor record:

  • Despite high user charges, in many parts of Africa infrastructure is poorly funded and not up to international standards
  • Airlines are competing in a global market that has a shortage of licensed personnel. To meet projected demand in 2026, we must train 19,000 pilots a year. With capacity of 16,000, the shortfall by 2026 would be 54,000 pilots
  • Governments need to cooperate and jointly provide and recognise standards, licensing and training

The Federal Aviation Administration has created a standards system that rates countries on their aviation safety record. It’s quite a simple system. Countries, not airlines are rated with either a 1, meaning that the airlines meet standards, or a 2 meaning that they don’t. It doesn’t seem like such a great system to me because I know of quality airlines that exist side-by-side with horrendous ones. Find the list here.

The European Union has responded to African air carriers with poor safety records, by blacklisting them. This means that airlines on the list are banned from flying within the airspace of member states. The list is probably also a good indicator of which airlines lack proper safety standards. Notably, the EU blacklist includes Hewa Bora Airways of Democratic Republic of Congo. That’s the same air carrier that was involved in the April 15th crash in Goma.   

The conclusion that I’ve some to is that it is riskier to fly in Africa (about six times risker in fact). If you do your research you can make choices that will improve your chances of picking a safe carrier. There are plenty of African airlines with good records and high standards. I’ve flown Air Kenya and Air Ethiopia before and been impressed by both.