The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A lingering question after Germanwings jet crash: Just how safe is the Airbus A320?

There have been two fatal crashes of Airbus A320s since December 2014. PostTV takes a look at the plane's safety record. (Note: A previous version of this video misidentified a Delta Connection aircraft as a Delta aircraft. The image has been replaced.) (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

You've most likely flown aboard an Airbus A320, the kind of jet that crashed in the French Alps on Tuesday with 150 people onboard. One of the world's most widely used aircraft, it is flown by virtually every U.S. airline, and one of the A320 fleet's jets takes off or lands every 2.5 seconds.

But the short-haul, single-aisle A320 has also been at the center of a dozen fatal accidents since 1988, including in December, when an AirAsia jet crashed into the Java Sea, killing 162 passengers and crew.

So just how safe is the A320? For every million takeoffs, the A320 fleet has about 0.14 fatal accidents, according to a Boeing study that analyzed five decades of air disasters. That puts it on par with the Boeing 777 as one of the least dangerous commercial planes in the sky.

"In terms of accident rates, it's one of the safest jets built," said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation expert and vice president of aerospace consultancy Teal Group Corp. "There are no reasons to question its record."

Run by Germanwings, the low-cost offshoot of German airline Lufthansa, the passenger flight from Barcelona to Düsseldorf was carrying six crew members and 144 passengers, including a group of 16 schoolchildren, all of whom are now presumed dead.

Search teams deploy after a plane operated by Lufthansa’s Germanwings budget airline crashed in a remote area of the French Alps on Tuesday. There are no signs of survivors among the 150 people aboard. (Video: Reuters)

Flight 9525 crashed after an eight-minute descent into a snowy, mountainous region of the Alps about 400 miles southeast of Paris, near the small village of Meolans-Revel and Pra Loup, a popular southern France ski resort. Airbus said it plans to dispatch a go-team of technical advisers to help investigate the crash, one of Western Europe's worst plane disasters in decades.

The crashed jet, which had flown 58,300 hours across 46,700 flights, was delivered to Lufthansa from the production line in 1991. That makes it one of the older A320s but still within the average age of planes in service. The average A320 flown by Delta, for instance, is about 20 years old, airline data show.

Asked if the airline would ground its A320s, Germanwings spokesman Thomas Winkelmann said the planes have a "fabulous service record" and said there would be further investigation. The jet's last major inspection was in 2013, though a regular check of the plane was conducted Monday, the day before the crash, Germanwings officials said.

Germanwings officials said there were contradictory reports on whether a distress signal was sent. Responding to German media speculation that a computer glitch could have forced the plane into a steep dive, Germanwings said they believed that had not caused the crash and that the A320's computer systems were fully updated.

Airbus, which made its name on wide-body jets like the A300, found worldwide success with the A320, which boosted the airline's profile and forced rival carriers like Boeing to step up competition for their similar jet, the 737. The twin-engine, single-aisle A320 is able to fit 150 passengers and efficiently reach long ranges.

The A320 family has expanded to nearly 6,200 aircraft worldwide; the family includes similar jets, including the smaller A318 and A319 and extended A321. The fleet has accumulated 150 million flight hours across more than 85 million flights, Airbus said. Almost all domestic mainline flights today either rely on an A320 or 737.

"It’s extraordinarily popular and regarded as a reliable, safe aircraft, one that’s in service in every part of the world," said Seth Kaplan, the managing partner for Airline Weekly. Nearly all major U.S. airlines fly them; the only notable exceptions are Southwest and Alaska Airlines, which use exclusively Boeing jets.

The investigation into the last major A320 crash, of an AirAsia flight bound for Singapore, has focused on severe thunderstorms and the jet's abnormally steep climb. But four other crashes over the past few years have drawn eyes to the A320.

In August 2011, pilot error caused an Airbus A320-214 flown by Gulf Air to skid off the runway at Kochi airport in India. In 2009, a US Airways A320-214 flown by pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger smashed into a flock of geese shortly after takeoff and crashed into the Hudson River in New York. No one was hurt.

In 2008, an Airbus A320 leased by Germany's XL Airways crashed into the Mediterranean Sea after a test-flight engine malfunction, killing seven. In 2007, during the deadliest A320 crash to date, a jet overshot an airport runway in São Paulo, Brazil, and erupted once it hit a fueling station, killing nearly 200.

Germanwings is used for cheaper flights outside major hubs in Frankfurt and Munich for Lufthansa, Europe's largest airline. The closest American analogue, Kaplan said, would be United Airlines' TED division or US Airways' MetroJet.

There was a time when budget airlines were seen as skimping on safety, particularly after a fatal crash involving ValuJet Airlines, but low-cost airlines now boast low accident rates and safety records very similar to larger legacy carriers, experts said.

It was Germanwings first crash, the airlines said. “If our fears are confirmed," Deutsche Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr tweeted, "this is a dark day for Lufthansa."