• There are a multitude of options when it comes to taking to the sky, from a trip to Australia by scheduled airline, a short flight in a friend’s private aircraft or a champagne balloon flight. Each comes with different levels of safety oversight and risk.

    Different types of flying and their safety record

    There are a multitude of options when it comes to taking to the sky, from a trip to Australia by scheduled airline, a short flight in a friend’s private aircraft or a champagne balloon flight.

    Each comes with different levels of safety oversight and risk. Below are some examples and statistics to provide you with more information to be able to make informed decisions on the type of flying you want to do.

    Commercial airline flights

    As you would expect this area of aviation has the highest levels of safety requirements and regulatory oversight. All aspects of these flights – the airlines, pilots, maintenance, air traffic controllers etc all have to hold the highest level of licences and approvals. The CAA spends a considerable amount of time inspecting all areas of the operations and working with the airline industry to continually improve safety standards.

    There is an average of one fatality for every 287 million passengers carried by UK operators. This can be compared with a one in 19 million chance of being struck and killed by lightning in the UK or a one in 17,000 chance of being killed in a road accident.

    Despite our excellent safety record, the UK is still active in identifying potential causes of accidents and reducing their likelihood so that safety can be continuously improved.

    International aviation safety

    The safety record of civil aviation in individual countries is available via the independent Flight Safety Foundation website.

    Refusal of access to European skies

    Certain airlines are banned from operating in European airspace (including UK airspace) because they are found to be unsafe and/or they are not sufficiently overseen by their authorities.

    The list of banned airlines is drawn up by the European Commission in close consultation with the aviation safety authorities of all European Union Member States.

    Access the list of banned airlines

  • Regulation

    Civil aviation is very tightly regulated to help ensure the highest levels of safety. Basic international regulations are set by a United Nations body called the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Individual national regulators then take these regulations implementing and enforcing them in their own country. They may also add to them to further raise safety levels.

    Within Europe much of the safety regulations are set by a European Commission body called the European Aviation Safety Agency. This means there is a common set of requirements across Europe on areas like pilot licensing and aircraft type approvals. National regulators, such as the UK CAA, then use those requirements to regulate civil aviation in their country.

  • Within controlled airspace there are strict rules on how far airliners must be apart. Close to airports the separation is a minimum of three miles horizontally or 1,000ft vertically. Once an aircraft is in an airway the horizontal separation normally increases to five miles.

    How risk is managed

    As well as the normal roles of the pilots and air traffic controllers there are also technological systems in place to help separate aircraft. Airborne collision avoidance systems (sometimes referred to as TCAS) fitted to aircraft are constantly scanning the area around the aircraft looking for any other flights that pose a collision risk. If it spots a potential issue it will alert the pilots. There are various levels of alert depending on the risk. The system in each aircraft will also communicate electronically with the TCAS in the other aircraft and can ensure that each pilot takes the opposite manoeuvre to avoid collision. For example, the TCAS system in one aircraft may tell its pilots to climb while the system in the other aircraft tells its pilots to descend.

    Air traffic controllers also have a similar system fitted to their radar screens known as Short Term Conflict Alert. This highlights aircraft on the radar screen that the system thinks may be about to lose their minimum separation. 

    Very occasionally, in spite of these safety systems, the minimum separation is not maintained. When this happens pilots and controllers can file a report for the incident to be investigated and reviewed - these are known as Airprox (air proximity) reports. In 2012 out of over one million commercial flights there was one incident that was independently assessed as being a risk to the aircraft involved.  

    The reviews of all incidents are available from the UK Airprox Board.

    Note: Only pilots and air traffic controllers can report Airprox incidents

    Although occasionally people may think they have witnessed an incident where aircraft have come too close together it is actually impossible to judge the distances between aircraft, their variations in size and perspective from the ground. 

    Most approaches to land end in a normal safe landing but very occasionally the aircraft may abort its landing. This is known as a go-around. They are rare but do occur a handful of times a day at major airports. They occur for a variety of reasons but are normally done to maintain safety.

    Two of the most common reasons for go arounds are:

    • the pilot is unhappy with the approach
    • air traffic control is uncertain if the aircraft landing in front will be clear of the runway in time.

    Pilot go arounds are more common when the weather is poor, particularly if it is windy, and the crew may decide that they are unhappy with the situation and elect to abort the landing and try again. In both cases the aircraft will climb away normally and the air traffic controller will bring the aircraft round for another approach to land as soon as possible. 

    Although they can be unexpected and frightening to passengers, pilots and controllers are trained to do go arounds - pilots regularly practice them in flight simulators. They help to maintain the safety of the flight and in many cases it would be more dangerous to continue with the landing. 

    Travelling by air is extremely safe. There is an average of one fatality for every 287 million passengers carried by UK airlines. This can be compared with a one in 19 million chance of being struck and killed by lightning in the UK or a one in 17,000 chance of being killed in a road accident. 

    But like all modes of transport very occasionally there may unfortunately be an accident or incident. In the UK these are investigated by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch which is an agency of the Department for Transport.  

    Their expert investigators will use data from the flight and air traffic control and interviews with those concerned to come to a conclusion on the cause. In complex cases this may take many months. Their reports are then made publicly available. 

    In some cases those reports may make recommendations to the CAA, aircraft manufacturers or other organisations to look into issues in more detail or make changes.