Poland's President Kaczynski: Flying in the Face of Danger?

Russian authorities begin to examine the crash site. (Maxim Malinovsky/ AFP-Getty Images)

The Russian-made Tupolev Tu-154 that wiped out Poland's leadership this weekend is hardly the first aircraft of its kind to have wreaked havoc on a nation. It is a creaky old Soviet-era aircraft, designed in the mid-1960s, responsible for a huge raft of crashes, often in bad weather. Usually, this is blamed on the age of the fleet; former Polish prime minister Leszek Miller (a helicopter-crash survivor himself) voiced those sentiments when he told Polish news that he predicted Poland's leadership "will one day meet in a funeral procession, and that is when we will take the decision to replace the aircraft fleet."

But age may not be the problem. Steve Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), told NEWSWEEK after another Tupolev crash last year, "It has been proven time and again that there is no link between fleet age and accident rate." Turns out it's not how old the plane is that determines the safety of your flight, but where the plane was made and where it's operated, according to an IATA report. The association indexes aircraft accident rates by region of manufacture and region of operation. Companies like America's Boeing, Europe's Airbus, and even Brazil's Embraer are considered Western-built jets. Makers like Tupolev are of the Eastern-built variety, which are almost all designed in the former Soviet republics or China.

The IATA data show that Western-built jets crash at a rate of 0.81, which means that there is one loss per 1.2 million flights; among turboprops the number is 2.43. Eastern-built planes are not broken down among plane type (jets and props are calculated together), but in any case the crash rate is a whopping 12.11, which works out to one accident per 83,000 flights.

Obviously, correlation does not prove causality (the Polish president's plane didn't crash because it was made in Russia). And where you fly has an even greater impact on air safety, since some countries have stricter regulations, more sophisticated aviation infrastructures, and better air-control systems than others—although presumably the nation's official fleet is as well kept as it can be. In fact, usually those places with lax controls are the very places where Eastern-built aircraft are operated, which is why parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and the former Soviet republics remain more dangerous places to fly. It's worth putting all these safety qualms in perspective: if you were to take one flight each day on an Eastern-built aircraft, you could expect to go, on average, 226 years without incident. But, statistically speaking, odds say you're better off steering clear of planes that carry a MADE IN RUSSIA label.