The European Union (EU) blacklists airlines it considers unsafe, banning them from serving the EU. It doesn’t just pay attention to carriers that actually want to fly into the EU, it judges carriers all over the world. And so EU blacklisting has become a de facto judgement about all carriers’ safety. It’s worth paying attention to.
Often times the reason for the black listing is a lack of trust in a safety regulator, rather than an individual airline. On this basis the EU blacklists all carriers from particular countries including, at the moment, Afghanistan (well, duh), Zambia and Nepal. Individual carriers from those jurisdictions can get an exemption from the ban if they satisfy the EU that they can prove safety independently from whatever the regulator in their home country might say about them.
In 2009 the Kazakh aviation regulator failed an international audit and Kazakh carriers were EU blacklisted. From what I’ve read the problems were basically twofold. First, there was a bunch of Soviet era regulation which hadn’t been updated. Second, the regulator was underfunded. It couldn’t hire and retain the quality staff it needed.
The EU let Air Astana keep flying to Europe, but banned it from expanding its operations. Air Astana flies a modern, Western fleet. It registers them in Aruba so they’re subject to Aruban safety regulation which is pretty well respected. So there are good reasons to treat them differently from other Kazakh airlines. But if you think they’re safe, why not let them expand in Europe? That, I have never understood, and probably never will. As of April, Air Astana can fly wherever it pleases in the EU. It’s got new routes to Paris and Prague in its sights. Very good.
With the weird case of Air Astana aside, EU judgements about carrier safety are pretty good, and probably more relevant to your travel plans than you imagine. In New Zealand’s neighbourhood most carriers from Indonesia and the Philippines are blacklisted. Notably, though, while safetravel.govt.nz tells travelers to be wary of flying a Chinese made plane in Tonga, it is silent about the potential hazards of carriers the EU says are unsafe.