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Should an airline’s marketing pitch refer to its comparative safety ranking?
Maybe it’s not a good idea.
As narrated in another post, I’ve taken four long-haul flights on TAP Air Portugal lately. I like the airline a lot. So this post should not be construed as anti-TAP. But I use it as a case study to ask whether it is a good idea for a major airline to have a marketing pitch that impliedly suggests it is safer than its competitors.
Playing around with the TAP seat-back screen on my first flight, I clicked on the link to some pages that talk about the airline itself. And one screen included the following statement: “Recognized as the safest airline in Europe and the world’s fifth safest operator by the AirlineRatings website in 2022, TAP continuously invests in innovation, in cutting-edge technologies….”
It is true that TAP was ranked as stated in that study. So I am not suggesting that TAP is misquoting the website.
However, I’m not sure I’d head up the path of quoting it if I were in charge of marketing an airline. No one doubts TAP is a very safe airline. But comparative rankings of leading airlines can be somewhat subjective depending on what weight one attributes to different factors — and, indeed, what factors are considered in the first place. The disclaimer in this particular rating states “the ratings do not take into consideration every safety parameter, such as pilot training standards….” That seems a pretty major omission. I’m not suggesting this ratings company does not try in good faith to come up with fair numbers. But it is not a perfect science.
The criteria apparently do not ding ratings for accidents not caused by the airline or its crew. But it can take a long time for accident investigation reports to become final. For example, it took around 18 months for Captain Sully to be vindicated. As the movie reminds us, he was initially investigated for having allegedly mishandled events when his aircraft suffered a bird strike before he ditched it on the River Hudson. So what do annual safety ratings do in the aftermath of a major crash? Does a ratings company just ignore it until the final report is out? Or make a provisional assessment of its own? Neither seems ideal. I don’t claim to know the answers, but questions like these make me doubt the utility of annual airline safety rankings in the first place.
At the end of the day, is TAP suggesting it is more safe than its European Star Alliance partners such as Lufthansa? If not, what is its point in referring to — and impliedly endorsing — this ranking?
And if one is going to pay heed to the ranking, TAP is effectively stating there are some airlines — not based in Europe — that are safer than it. Which is an odd ingredient to include in a marketing pitch. For example, returning from Mozambique to the US recently, I chose TAP via Lisbon. But had I based my decision on the safety ratings in the study that TAP touts, I would have opted for Qatar via Doha.
Also, what would happen if, hypothetically, the formula in next year’s ranking nudged another airline up a bit so it was a point ahead of TAP in the European category? Would it then be fair to refer to TAP dismissively as “formerly recognized as the safest airline in Europe” — implying some decline in comparative safety? Of course not.
Perhaps the reality here is that TAP is concerned whether, as a less familiar international airline to those who are not Portuguese, and as one that is now back under state ownership, some cautious travelers might wonder about safety. So this is just gentle reassurance, not bragging.
But reassurance along those lines shouldn’t be necessary. There are no doubt some airlines whose safety is questionable. I don’t believe any major European airline — such as TAP — is among them. Passengers should — and can — take it for granted that an airline like TAP is very safe without a comparative ranking to establish it.
So by all means rank leading airlines on all sorts of things. On-time performance. Lost luggage. Comfort. Catering. But perhaps not safety. ✈️
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