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Air Safety Abroad Not Always to U.S. Level

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Air Safety Abroad Not Always to U.S. Level

By; Leslie Miller

WASHINGTON (AP) - The two jetliners that crashed in the past three days were both flying for new, low-cost regional carriers, which are springing up around the world as governments follow the U.S. lead and deregulate air travel.

A total of 281 people died in the crashes of a West Caribbean Airways MD-82 in Venezuela on Tuesday and a Helios Airways Boeing 737-300 in Greece on Sunday. Helios Airways was founded in 1999 as Cyprus' first private airline. West Caribbean Airways, a Colombian airline, began service in 1998.

"There's been a raft of these low-cost carriers in South America and Asia," said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board. "The question is, what's the level of oversight of these carriers?"

The answer: possibly not as high as in the United States, which is experiencing the safest period in aviation history.

There hasn't been a major jetliner crash here since November 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 lost its tail and plunged into a New York City neighborhood, killing 265 people.

John Nance, a pilot and aviation analyst, said there are two reasons for the United States' safety record: standards set by the Federal Aviation Administration and the realization by U.S. airlines that they must focus on safety.

After the U.S. government deregulated air travel in 1978, Nance said, the country went through a period where airlines that didn't pay close attention to safety went out of business.

"There was a weeding out in the '80s of carriers that wouldn't or couldn't understand the necessity for safety first," Nance said. "We got to the point where the airlines run by people with some professionalism realized you can't scrimp on these things, you absolutely can't."

The story is different in some places outside the United States, where smaller countries are replacing national carriers with American-style deregulation - sometimes with inadequate safety oversight.

At least half a dozen African countries don't adhere to international safety standards. Last summer, Ghana Airways was barred from flying into and out of the United States because of concerns that its planes weren't safe.

Aviation safety standards are set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency headquartered in Montreal.

In 1992, the FAA decided to make sure that airlines flying into the United States meet ICAO safety standards. The agency began to assess whether non-U.S. civil aviation authorities provide adequate safety oversight.

Twenty-six of the 100 countries that have been assessed don't meet ICAO standards. Most are in Africa, South American and the Caribbean.

Goelz said he always flies on major U.S. carriers to the Caribbean, even though it costs more.

"I'm not going to fly some fly-by-night carrier that's going to get me to the Bahamas the cheapest," Goelz said. "If you're letting the travel agent book and you say, 'I want the lowest possible fare,' that works OK in the U.S. and Canada, but I'm not sure I'd use that in other parts of the world."

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