JAL was established in 1951 and became the national airline of Japan in 1953. It joined the oneworld alliance in 2007 and operates primarily from Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. JAL is consistently rated as a safe airline to fly with.
The airline is IATA IOSA certified and its safety regulator is one of the world’s leading civil aviation safety regulators, meaning that JAL aircraft and crew licensing standards, and airline safety protocols are among the best monitored and regulated in the world.
Fatal accidents involving JAL aircraft are now very rare. The last one occurred 38 years ago and since then JAL has suffered only a small number of aircraft incidents. I would have no hesitation or concerns about boarding a JAL aircraft and going on to enjoy the high-quality inflight service that this airline is renowned for.
Japan Airlines Safety Charter
JAL puts safety at the core of its corporate culture. It has established a Safety Charter that underlies all operations and represents the JAL senior management’s commitment to safety. All JAL Group employees carry a card printed with the Safety Charter and perform their daily duties as professionals in conformance with the Safety Charter.
The airline also operates a Safety Management System and regularly reports against its safety targets in its annual Group Safety Report. In the 2022 report, the JAL Group reported three incidents, two of which were related to turbulence and one where a passenger was injured on landing (likely the result of a hard landing).
JAL’s current strong focus on safety originates from the 1985 Mount Osutaka incident. On August 12th, 1985, flight JL123 took off from Tokyo Haneda Airport destined for Osaka Itami Airport with 509 passengers and 15 crew members on board. Shortly before reaching cruising altitude, the aft pressure bulkhead ruptured and the pressurized air in the cabin blew out into the aft fuselage. At the same time, all four hydraulic systems were severed, making the flight control surfaces inoperable.
The aircraft continued to fly unstably for about 30 minutes and then crashed into Mount Osutaka. There were only four survivors. The probable cause of this accident was a previous tail strike during a landing seven years prior to the accident with the repair work by Boeing deemed faulty.
Following this accident, JAL has focussed heavily on safety and opened a Safety Promotions Centre which acts as a safety training center for JAL employees. I get a very strong impression that this tragic accident acted as a major turning point in JAL’s history leading to a safer and more positive future.
Japan Airlines Operates a Modern Fleet
If you equate safety with an airline’s aircraft feet age (although you should not), then let’s take a look at the JAL fleet and the average age of each aircraft type in its fleet.
Traditionally JAL has been mainly a Boeing customer, but in recent years, it has bought Airbus A350 aircraft. JAL continues to renew its fleet and has 22 unfulfilled orders with Boeing for 737MAX aircraft and 15 unfulfilled orders for A350 aircraft.
According to Airfleets.net the overall average weighted age of the active main JAL fleet (excluding Japan Air Commuter) is 10.9 years. The average JAL aircraft ages by aircraft type are shown in the table below. We can see that there is quite a range of ages across the different aircraft types.
JAL’s 767s and 777s are its oldest aircraft, with an average of just over 16 years. These aircraft were delivered between 2002 and 2011. The youngest aircraft type in the JAL fleet is the A350 with an average age of 2.6 years. These aircraft were delivered between 2019 and 2022.
|Aircraft||Active Airframes||Average Age/ years|
An average fleet age of around 10 years is quite typical for a major international airline and is similar to many other major airlines. For example, Lufthansa’s average fleet age is 10.5 years, United Airlines’ is 16.5 years, KLM’s is 10.9 years, Air France’s is 14.3 years, and British Airways’ is 12.9 years.
Japan Air Commuter (a JAL subsidiary) operates a small fleet of ATR42 and 72 aircraft, which, according to Airfleets.net has an average aircraft age of just 4.4 years.
JAL Is IOSA-Certified and a Member of the oneworld Alliance
AirlineRatings.com provides a comparison of the world’s airlines from a number of different perspectives including safety. While such safety rankings have limited practical use, they serve as a good overview of airlines’ approach to safety. aJAL has the highest possible, seven-star safety rating by the site meaning that:
- JAL has not suffered any fatal accidents within the last 10 years (3 stars) and has not suffered numerous safety-related incidents (2 stars).
- JAL is IOSA (IATA Operational Safety Audit) certified (1 star). This audit is the benchmark for global safety management in airlines. The audit is optional and assesses whether an airline has the necessary systems and processes in place to operate safely. Airlines are evaluated every two years. In addition, JAL is not blacklisted in the European Union or the United States (1 star).
JAL is regulated by The Japan Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (Civil Aviation Bureau). Japan’s ICAO Safety Audit results are very good with effective implementation in the range of 80% to 95% for the eight areas audited, well above the global average for all eight audit areas. The IATA audit assesses a nation’s approach to airline safety oversight and regulation.
The airline is also a member of the oneworld Alliance, one of the world’s three major airline alliances. Whilst membership in a major airline alliance is not a safety certification per se, it’s still a significant stamp of approval for the airline’s approach to safety and operations. Other oneworld Alliance member airlines include British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Qatar Airways, and American Airlines.
Additionally, JAL was positioned 17th in the Asia Pacific/Africa region in a 2022 airline safety ranking study conducted by the Hamburg-based Jet Airliner Crash Data Evaluation Centre (JACDEC). JACDEC assesses the world’s largest airlines based on factors such as fleet age, accident history (1992 onward), country risk factors, route profile (i.e. more short hauls equals more take-offs and landings which are the riskiest portions of a flight, etc.
The JAL assessed risk factor for 2022 was 87.44, on par with other major international airlines such as British Airways and Lufthansa. Overall, across the world, the top-ranked airline was Emirates with a score of 95.05. The JAL score reflects the local terrain and weather conditions in Japan and its relatively high proportion of short-haul flights.
JAL Incidents and Accidents
Similar to many large airlines that have had a long operational history and that operate a large fleet, JAL aircraft have been involved in a number of incidents. Many of these were unavoidable natural events such as bird strikes, unexpected turbulence, and lightning strikes.
That said, during the 1970s and early part of the 1980s, JAL suffered a number of fatal crashes. JAL’s worst accident is the 1985 Mount Osutaka incident, described above. Since this terrible accident, JAL has not suffered any crashes and the incidents involving JAL aircraft have been few and far between.
The most serious JAL incidents over the last 40 years are shown in the table below:
|October 1991||B747||Near Tokyo, Japan||A hot liquid released from a burst pipe in the aircraft’s pressurization system caused a hole in the fuselage beneath the port wing. The captain dumped fuel and returned safely to Tokyo.|
|June 1997||MD-11||Hong Kong to Nagoya||The aircraft descended on approach to Nagoya, but then experienced abrupt and abnormal altitude changes, injuring five passengers and seven crew members. The captain was indicted for an alleged error in piloting the MD-11 aircraft, and was then subsequently blamed for the death of a cabin crew member 20 months after the incident. The Nagoya District Court later acquitted the captain, Koichi Takamoto in July 2004.|
|January 2013||B787||Boston, USA||Ground crew workers noticed smoke coming from the battery compartment in the parked B787. The fire was caused by overcharged lithium-ion batteries, eventually leading to the grounding of the world’s B787 fleet and the subsequent redesign of the B787 battery systems.|
|July 2020||B767||Kumamoto to Tokyo, Japan||Fractured engine turbine blades caused engine damage. None of the occupants on board were injured in the incident.|
|December 2020||B777||Okinawa to Tokyo, Japan||The aircraft suffered a fan blade failure in one of its engines. None of the 189 occupants on board were injured in the incident.|
|November 2022||ATR72 (Japan Air Commuter, JAC)||Kagoshima, Japan||A passenger suffered a back injury upon landing. None of the other passengers or crew members were injured. The probable cause was a hard landing.|
Summary: Is Flying with JAL Safe?
Yes, flying with JAL is safe.
There have been no fatal accidents since 1985, and other serious incidents have been relatively rare. In addition, JAL operates with safety protocols and procedures that are endorsed by its IOSA certification which is the benchmark for global safety management in airlines.