Don't let recent incidents fool you, Regional Express is as safe as they come

In the aftermath of a recent Regional Express flight forced into an emergency landing at Merimbula Airport, I've noticed a number of people on social media saying things along the lines of "I'll never fly with Rex again".

As someone with more than a passing interest in aviation, this piqued my interest. Australia is renowned for its excellent commercial aviation safety record. Our nation has had one commercial disaster in the past 50 years, and hasn't had an incident that killed more than 20 people since 1968.

Regional Express was founded in 2002, and is Australia's largest regional airline outside of Qantas group companies.

Rex's fleet consists of 57 Saab 340s, a Swedish twin-engine turboprop first flown in 1983. Saab ceased production of the aircraft in 1999, so all 340s are now at least 20 years old. Does that make it an unsafe aircraft? Not necessarily. I looked through aviation safety records, and in the 36 years the Saab 340 has been used by commercial airlines, I only found four fatal accidents.

The first was a crash in Amsterdam in 1994 that killed three people. The plane suffered engine problems and stalled on approach. The second was a crash in Taiwan in 1998 that killed 13 people. It was caused by an electrical fault that led to human error.

The third was a crash in Switzerland in 2000 that killed 10 people - again found to be caused by human error. The fourth was a crash in Argentina that killed 22 people. This crash was caused by a stall due to severe icing on the wings. So two of the four were caused by human error, and one by the weather - nothing to do with the plane itself.

I found another seven incidents where the Saab 340 was unsalvageable, known as a 'hull loss', but didn't cause any fatalities. So even if you're unlucky enough to be on a flight where the Saab 340 will be destroyed, you're more likely to survive that crash anyway. For comparison's sake, the similar Embraer EMB-120 Brasilia had 14 fatal crashes in the same time frame. Another similar aircraft, the ATR 42, had 12. The Saab 340 is a safe plane even by the industry's already high standards.

So then I looked at Rex itself. I found 21 incidents since 2011, which seems like a lot, but really isn't. An 'incident' in the aviation industry can be anything from a devastating fatal crash to smelling a funny odour in the cockpit. It also includes bird strikes, improperly identifying airports, and any kind of mechanical failure.

Of those 21 incidents, I would only consider three to be serious. The most serious of these occurred in 2017 when a propeller sheared off a flight from Albury to Sydney. The plane landed safely with no reported injuries. Another serious incident occurred on the South Coast in 2015. A flight from Sydney to Moruya struck a number of birds on final approach but continued for a safe landing. The pilots performed an inspection of the aircraft before taking off for Merimbula. On final approach into Merimbula, the pilots noticed abnormal vibrations through the flight controls, but the plane landed without incident. A thorough check found a part of the propeller was missing; a tip had fallen off during the flight. The ATSB determined the bird-strike had reduced the structural integrity of the propeller blade.

The third serious incident was a near mid-air collision on a flight from Orange to Sydney in 2016. The aircraft was climbing out of 7500 feet when the pilots noticed a gilder and initiated evasive action. Both aircraft landed safely at their destinations. The other 17 incidents vary in seriousness. Four incidents of engine problems are fairly serious, as are the two incidents of hydraulic issues. One incident of electrical problems is far less serious than it sounds, while a de-icing boot failure would rarely have any negative impact in the Australian climate. There was a pair of runway incidents in Taree in 2012 and 2013, and a pilot reported smelling fuel in the cockpit on a 2015 flight.

Four of the other six incidents could be described as bad luck. The earliest incident I found was a faulty mobile phone catching alight on a flight in 2011. Another incident occurred in Moruya in 2013 when a group of skydivers dropped into the plane's departure path. The pilots simply made a left turn towards the ocean and continued on to Merimbula. There was another bird strike near Cairns in 2015, and a plane collided with a kangaroo during takeoff in Mildura the same year. The other two were caused by pilot error. In 2012 a flight crew confused the lights of a coal loading and storage facility for the runway lights of Newcastle Airport. This caused some moments of distress in the cockpit, but the plane eventually landed safely. The other was an incident in 2014 when the pilots retracted the landing gear 37 knots above the maximum allowable speed. The gear was undamaged, and the plane landed safely. A fire at Moruya Airport in 2013 was not included in records.

I can still hear nervous flyers saying 20 is too big a number, so here's some comparisons with other airlines. Qantas, famous for its safety record, had more than 90 incidents in the same time frame. Virgin Australia had more than 50, while Tiger had just over 20.

Flying is an inherently dangerous activity, but so is just about every other mode of transportation. Regional Express is one of the safest airlines in the safest form of transportation in the country. In fact, one could argue there's no safer way to get from A to B than stepping on a Rex plane.

Joel Erickson is an ACM journalist