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Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?

Update: On 16 October 2013 a Lao Airlines flight from Vientiane to Pakse crashed. The following story is not about that crash, but we're following developments here.

You're in Chiang Mai and want to fly to Luang Prabang. Or, you are in Vientiane and want to visit Angkor Wat, but don't have the time to go overland and can't afford flying via Bangkok. There's the rub. Sometimes a Lao Airlines flight is the only way to get where you want to go in the time you have. But given the airline's bad reputation for safety, what do you do? How bad is it really?

It's probably not as bad as you think. First off, it's important to make a distinction between routes flying the French-built ATR-72's, and the routes serviced by the Chinese-built MA-6 aircraft. The ATR-72 is used on the international routes, such as from Vientiane to Bangkok or Siem Reap, Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, and on the main domestic link between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Lao Airlines has never had a crash involving an ATR-72, and even the ever-cautious US State Department recommends that travellers fly only in Lao aircraft certified for regular international routes, such as the ATR's.

In the past, Lao Airlines' domestic routes workhorse was the Chinese built Y-12, but these routes have largely been taken over by the larger and more modern MA-6. Yet even here, international safety records show that Lao Y-12 crash statistics are not as bad as their reputation might suggest. The airline, operating as Lao Aviation, has had a total of five crashes, three with fatalities, since 1990. In December 1993, a Y-12 crashed in fog, killing 18. In May 1998, a Yak-40 carrying a Vietnamese Military delegation crashed in a rainstorm, with 26 dead. Then in October 2000, a Y-12 crashed in bad weather near Sam Neua, with 8 dead. The most recent mishap was in February 2002 when a Y-12 was knocked over by high winds while taking off. There were no deaths in that incident.

The infamous Yak 12

Obviously, this safety record can't compare with Qantas, but it does compare favourably with other regional airlines, and also compares well with the safety risks associated with other means of travel in Laos, such as riverboat or overland trips. The US State Department's advice here is simple, telling travellers to avoid flying in mountainous areas and particularly in bad weather.

Over the past few years, Lao Airlines has been making an effort to clean up its image. In April 2002, it signed an agreement with Air France for technical assistance to improve all aspects of its operations. There have been no recorded safety incidents since then. It has also attracted foreign investors, with China Yunnan Airlines taking a 60% interest.

These efforts have paid off both in the air and on the ground, with the vast majority of recent passenger comments complimenting the helpful staff, well-organised ground crew, and good in-flight service. Many passengers go on to recommend the airline, and say that they'd fly it again.

A view worth flying Lao Aviation for

Take a look at Lao Airlines English-language website to check routes, schedules and fares. Sample one-way fares in September 2009 include Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang for US$100, Bangkok to Vientiane for $105, Luang Prabang to Bangkok for $126, and Vientiane to Siem Reap for $137. These fares do not include taxes or airport fees, and keep in mind that they charge airfares in US dollars. Also, not all flights are every day, so plan ahead. Perhaps best of all, Lao Airlines participates in the Discovery Airpass offered by Bangkok Airways. Check with your travel agent for details.

Ultimately, the decision on whether or not to fly Lao is yours. Could a crash happen with you on board? Absolutely. Will it? Probably not. At least now you'll be able to base your decision on facts rather than hearsay. See you up there.

story by Mark Foley, aka exacto

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