The 20 safest airlines to fly in 2021, according to experts

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  • AirlineRatings just unveiled its list of the world’s safest airlines for 2021, according to the site’s experts, narrowing the top 20 from a list of 385.
  • The US had a great showing with six of the 11 major American carriers making the top 20 cut while Asia performed poorly. 
  • Carriers in Oceania and the Middle East also dominated the highest spots, continuing the trend from last year.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

A new ranking of the world’s safest airlines unveiled on Monday reveals which airlines should be sought after as the world returns to the skies post-pandemic, and which should be avoided. Aviation product and safety rating website AirlineRatings just released its yearly list of the top 20 safest airlines for 2021, according to its experts.

The site narrowed down 385 of the world’s airlines based on a variety of factors ranging from crashes and incidents to the age of an airline’s fleet. Airlines with younger fleets, for example, scored higher than those still utilizing older models.  

“Our top 20 safest airlines 2021 are always at the forefront of safety innovation, operational excellence, and the launching of new more advanced aircraft like the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787,” editor-in-chief Geoffrey Thomas said. 

Read more: 6 cargo airlines and freight operators poised to win big as COVID-19 vaccine shipping becomes big business in 2021

The US is the most represented country on the list with six out of the 11 major American carriers, including all of the big four, making their way into the top 20. Only two US carriers – Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines – made the cut last year.

Asia made little progress with the same airlines that earned a spot on the 2020 list making this year’s list with no new additions. Some airlines from the region managed to climb on the list; though, most lost their standing year-on-year. 

Here are the world’s safest airlines for 2021, according to AirlineRatings. 

20. United Airlines

United Airlines earned the number 20 spot on this year’s list after not being featured on last year’s. Recent years have seen United modernize its all-Boeing long-haul fleet by retiring the iconic 747 and adopting new types including the 777-300ER and all three 787 Dreamliner variants.

The airline also has plans to resume flying the 737 Max on February 11, 2021, from Houston and Denver. 

19. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines moved up one spot from its 2020 position to earn the number 19 spot on this year’s list. One of the world’s oldest airlines, the flag carrier of the Netherlands will celebrate 102 years of operations in October having been founded in 1919. 

Boeing aircraft largely dominate KLM’s fleet with types like the 787 Dreamliner and 737 Next Generation flying passengers to and from Amsterdam. The pandemic accelerated the retirement of KLM’s older aircraft including the Boeing 747-400, leaving the airline with a long-haul fleet consisting of the Airbus A330, Boeing 777, and Boeing 787 Dreamliner families. 

18. Lufthansa

Lufthansa stayed put in this year’s ranking compared to last year’s, earning the number 18 spot once more. Recent years have seen the German flag carrier adopt a modern fleet consisting of the Airbus A320neo, Airbus A350-900XWB, and Boeing 747-8i.

Older models like the Airbus A340-600 and Airbus A380 have been due to the pandemic, with FlightGlobal suggesting they’ve already flown their last passenger flights. Lufthansa is also one of the first customers for the new Boeing 777X, currently flying test flights around the Pacific Northwest. 

17. Finnair

Finnair also stayed stagnant on this year’s list compared to 2020, once again earning the number 17 spot. The airline connects Finland with the world, as Business Insider found on a 2019 trip from New York to Copenhagen, using a fleet of primarily Airbus aircraft, including the new A350-900XWB.

AirlineRatings noted that Finnair has achieved a “perfect record” for flying during the jet age. 

16. SAS Scandinavian Airlines

SAS Scandinavian Airlines fell back two spots to earn the number 16 ranking for 2021’s list, compared to the number 14 spot last year. An ongoing fleet renewal is seeing SAS adopt two new Airbus models, the A350-900XWB and A320neo, and pledge to cut back on emissions by powering all domestic Scandinavian flights with biofuel.

15. American Airlines

American Airlines is another fresh face on the 2020 list, earning having not earned a spot last year but coming in at number 15 this year. 

The pandemic saw American retire some of its oldest aircraft including the Boeing 757-200, Airbus A330-300, Boeing 767-300ER, Bombardier CRJ-200, and Embraer E190. Some of the aircraft had been acquired in the 2013 merger with US Airways that solidified American as the world’s largest airline.

American now boasts a long-haul fleet primarily comprised of Boeing jets including the 777 and 787 Dreamliner families, and just resumed flying the Boeing 737 Max. 

14. Delta Air Lines

Delta is another new face on this list, earning the number 14 spot this year while failing to make the top 20 last year.  The pandemic also saw Delta embark on accelerated fleet renewal, retiring older types including Boeing 777, McDonnell Douglas MD-88, McDonnell Douglas MD-90, and Boeing 737-700 while onboarding the Airbus A220-300. 

Airbus aircraft now dominate Delta’s fleet with new the airline acquiring new ultra-modern models like the A220-100, A220-300, A350-900XWB, and A330-300neo.

13. Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines, another new face on the 2021 list, earned the number 13 spot, the highest of the US big four airlines. But the airline’s addition comes just weeks after a US Senate report blasted Southwest for safety issues and criticized the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of the low-cost carrier.

The report cited key issues relating to Southwest’s acquisition of foreign aircraft with questionable airworthiness standards, close relationships between FAA managers and the airline, pilots performing unsafe maneuvers, and improper reporting of aircraft maintenance issues, among others.  

AirlineRatings didn’t respond to Business Insider’s request for comment on the methodology used for Southwest’s inclusion on the list. 

12. Hawaiian Airlines

Hawaiian Airlines earns the number 12 spot this year, falling short by one place from last year. Recent years have seen Hawaiian expand to its furthest destinations, including Boston, and take on next-generation aircraft including the Airbus A321neo. 

The Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner will also soon join the airline’s fleet, though the first delivery has been delayed until at least 2022, FlightGlobal reported. AirlineRatings noted that Hawaiian has achieved a “perfect record” for flying during the jet age. 

11. Virgin Australia and Virgin Atlantic Airways

AirlineRatings merged Virgin Australia and Virgin Atlantic Airways in this year’s ranking, with the Commonwealth of Nations duo earning the number 11 spot. Last year saw Virgin Australia in the number 10 spot and Virgin Atlantic in the number 12 spot. 

In the UK, Virgin Atlantic is currently embarking on a fleet renewal that has seen the addition of the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner and Airbus A350-1000XWB, with orders for 14 Airbus A330-900neo aircraft. Virgin Australia, alternatively, operates the Boeing 737 Max and just completed a change of ownership with Bain Capital now backing the airline. 

10. British Airways

British Airways earned the number 10 spot on this year’s list after not making the list last year. Recent years have seen the airline adopt next-generation aircraft including the Airbus A320neo, Airbus A321neo, Airbus A350-1000XWB, and all three variants of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

The pandemic accelerated the retirement of British Airways’ Boeing 747-400 fleet after a half-century of service and grounded the Airbus A380 indefinitely. The airline also retired its business class-only Airbus A318, which Business Insider toured in March, that flew between New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and London’s City Airport.

9. Cathay Pacific Airways

Cathay Pacific Airways earned the number nine spot this year, staying put from last year’s ranking. Protests in Hong Kong and the pandemic have hindered Cathay Pacific’s operation but recent years have seen the airline modernize its fleet by taking on new aircraft types like the Airbus A350 XWB family and A321neo. 

8. Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines once again earned the number eight spot, continuing the trend from last year as the highest-ranked US airline. 

Boeing aircraft currently dominate Alaska’s fleet but the airline does have one unique sub-fleet consisting of the Airbus A321neo, a next-generation version of the Airbus A321. The type was acquired in a merger with Virgin America and has plans to stay in the airline’s fleet while older Airbus jets are sold or retired.

Alaska will also soon fly the Boeing 737 Max as its first delivery is scheduled for this month. Flights are scheduled to begin in March 2021 on the West Coast with the airline promising to fly over 50 hours of proving flights across 19,000 miles before a passenger climbs onboard. 

7. Etihad Airways

Etihad Airways earned the number seven spot in this year’s ranking, falling back three position places from the 2020 list. Boeing aircraft dominate the airline’s long-haul fleet with newer types like the 787 Dreamliner and 777-300ER outnumbering its Airbus jets.

The UAE flag carrier is also one of the last remaining A380 operators; though, the fleet has been temporarily parked during the pandemic, according to Cirium.

6. EVA Air

EVA Air earned the number six spot this year, falling back three position places from last year. The Taiwanese flag carrier has retired its oldest and largest aircraft like the Boeing 747 in recent years while adding the Boeing 777-300ER, Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, and Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner. 

5. Emirates

Emirates moved up to the number five spot in this year’s list after ranking seventh on last year’s.

The mega carrier’s all-wide-body fleet currently consists of the Boeing 777 and the Airbus A380, but the next few years will see notable additions as Airbus and Boeing’s newest models are scheduled to arrive at the airline including the Airbus A350-90 XWB, Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, and Boeing 777x.

4. Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines earned the number three spot this year, moving up from number six in 2020. 

The Singaporean flag carrier frequently tops the list of the world’s longest flights and recently inaugurated a new non-stop route between New York City and Singapore using an Airbus A350-900XWB. With a range of 8,287 nautical miles, it narrowly beat out the Singapore-Newark route by just two nautical miles, despite having a shorter flight time in the Singapore-bound direction.

Regional routes also see the Boeing 787 Dreamliner as Singapore Airlines was the launch customer for the Dash 10 variant, also in use with United Airlines and EVA Air. 

3. Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand earned the number three spot on this year’s list, falling behind by just one position place from last year’s ranking. Boeing aircraft dominate the airline’s long-haul fleet with newer types like the 787-9 Dreamliner and 777-300ER. 

Newer Airbus jets like the A320neo and A321neo are also featured in the airline’s short-haul fleet. 

2. Qatar Airways

Qatar Airways earned the number two spot this year, beating out its UAE competitors Emirates and Etihad. In keeping up with rivals in the Middle East “big three”, Qatar has consistently acquired the latest and greatest aircraft from Airbus and Boeing, boasting the likes of the Airbus A350 XWB and Boeing 787 Dreamliner family while also becoming a launch customer for the upcoming Boeing 777X. 

1. Qantas

Qantas once again flies away with the top spot, earning the title of 2021’s safest airline. AirlineRatings noted Qantas’ stellar safety record of flying during the modern jet age with no fatal crashes.

The Australian flag carrier has been associated with safety for decades, with Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Rain Man” refusing to fly on any other airline.  

“Qantas has been the lead airline in virtually every major operational safety advancement over the past 60 years and has not had a fatality in the pure jet era,” said Thomas. 

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A380 dominated Qantas’ pre-pandemic fleet with the airline studying the use of the Airbus A350 for ultra-long-range flights from Sydney to New York and London, as Business Insider’s David Slotnick found on a test flight from New York to Sydney. The pandemic, however, has limited Qantas primarily to domestic flying.

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