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No travel agent will ever ask you,
“would you like to fly on a blacklisted airline?”
Which begs the question, how do blacklisted airlines find passengers?
Easy, because of traveller’s like me.
Every independent traveller has that nagging voice, whenever they encounter a potentially dangerous situation,
“What would mum say about this?”
It’s hard to ignore, but putting that voice aside is almost a guarantee of great stories to tell back home.
Years ago I was backpacking through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. I was intent on getting to Luang Prabang, (Laos) a UNESCO heritage town famous for it’s golden temples, and the perfect place to experience the Buddhist ceremony—the collecting of the alms; where hundreds of orange-robed monks walked in single-file down the street, collecting gifts of money and rice from worshippers. It sounded like a photographer’s dream.
However, getting to Luang Prabang wasn’t easy. I had two choices: Take a ten-hour overnight bus, along a windy, bumpy road, or a one hour flight on a blacklisted airline. Most traveller’s I encountered chose the cheaper option (bus). However time was limited and I was also curious, how bad could a blacklisted airline be?
I mean, for an airline to continue operating, ignoring safety standards and potentially causing accidents is hardly a reliable business model. So dangers aside, I bought a ticket, knowing I’d be flying on a blacklisted airline, said a secret prayer to any god that may have listened and stepped aboard.
First impressions were positive, it had seats, along with seatbelts. So far so good. It was only when I sat down I noticed a large piece of silver gaffa-tape, stuck over a crack in the fuselage, which was essentially holding the plane together.
Reading the safety instructions, (I never expected a blacklisted airline to have safety instructions) the pictures helpfully suggested, In the event of a water landing, grab hold of the seat cushions and hope for the best. It should be noted that this was the only safety advice.
The flight attendant handed out towelettes and a bottle of water, which is more than some fully certified airlines these days, however he then continued to climb into the cockpit, and prepare for takeoff. It turns out the pilot was also the flight-attendant.
As the propellers revved up, on the ATR-72, I noticed the window was covered in scratches, as if it had already flown through trees on a particularly rough landing.
All these aside, it was worth having the extra time in Luang Prabang because I was able to explore more of the town, which resulted in some of my favourite photos ever. Including this unique perspective of the collecting of the alms:
Not only did I survive flying on a black-listed airline, my experience was overall positive, compared to other airlines I’ve flown, such as the now defunct (and which was threatened to be blacklisted but wasn’t) Pulkovo Aviation (which I talk about in my podcast, Travelosophy #12).
How does an airline get blacklisted?
Each year, a list of blacklisted airlines is published by the European Union. Banned airlines are unable to fly into Europe, and can appear on the list for a multitude of reasons, including:
- Unreliable maintainance records and standards
- Poor management practices
- Poor or non-existent ramp checks
- Lack of government initiative of maintaining airline standards
However in some instances, an entire country can be blacklisted, though usually the root of a blacklist is lack of safety standards. In the early 2000’s, all Indonesian carriers (including the national carrier Garuda) were blacklisted until changes in safety standards were made. Eventually all airlines caught up, and there are now, zero Indonesian airlines on the blacklist (as of Jan 2018). In some instances, only a particular aircraft type is banned.
At the time I travelled with Lao Aviation, all I knew was they were blacklisted, however since researching for this article, it seems some of their aircraft were old Russian planes, which have since been put out of service from their fleet.
As for Lao Aviation, they have since re-branded, becoming Lao Airlines, purchased brand-new aircraft including Airbus A320’s, had a complete safety overhaul, and won numerous awards. So just because an airline may have been blacklisted in the past, doesn’t mean they can’t turn operations around.
If you’re curious where your favourite airline ranks, then check out the Airline Safety Rating criteria. Being blacklisted, doesn’t mean every other airline has remained accident free, as a quick search through this site, will demonstrate. A blog post about flying on a blacklisted airline would not be complete without giving advice on how to learn more about aircraft safety and ironically, I found the television show, air crash investigation, actually teaches you more about aircraft safety than any in-flight safety demonstration. For example the safest place on any aircraft, is in the rear, close to the black boxes.
Have you flown on a black-listed airline? If so, what’s been your experience? Comment below:
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