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Published: Tuesday, 1/3/2012

U.S. air-travel deaths in decade a record low

ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK -- Boarding an airplane has never been safer.

The past 10 years have been the best in the United States' aviation history, with 153 fatalities. That's two deaths for every 100 million passengers on commercial flights, according to an Associated Press analysis of government accident data.

Just a decade earlier, at the time the safest, passengers were 10 times more likely to die when flying on an American plane.

The risk of death was even greater during the start of the jet age, with 1,696 people dying -- 133 out of every 100 million passengers -- from 1962 to 1971.

The figures exclude acts of terrorism.

Sitting in a pressurized aluminum tube seven miles above the ground may never seem like the most natural thing. But an air traveler is more likely to die driving to the airport than flying across the country. More than 30,000 motor-vehicle deaths occur each year, a mortality rate eight times greater than that in planes.

"I wouldn't say air crashes of passenger airliners are a thing of the past. They're simply a whole lot more rare than they used to be," said Todd Curtis, a former safety engineer with Boeing and director of the Airsafe.com Foundation.

The improvements occurred even as the industry went through a miserable financial period, losing $54.5 billion in the past decade. Just to stay afloat, airlines eliminated meals and added fees for checked luggage.

Flying is still risky in some corners of the world.

Russia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia have particularly high rates of deadly crashes.

Russia had several fatal crashes in the past year, including one that killed several prominent hockey players.

Africa has only 3 percent of world air traffic but had 14 percent of fatal crashes.

Still, 2011 was a good year to fly. It had the second-fewest number of fatalities worldwide, according to the Flight Safety Foundation, with 507 people dying in crashes.

There are a number of reasons for the improvements.

The industry has learned from the past. New planes and engines are designed with prior mistakes in mind. Investigations of accidents have led to changes in procedures to ensure the same missteps don't occur again.

Better sharing of information. New databases allow pilots, airlines, plane manufacturers, and regulators to track incidents and near misses. Computers pick up subtle trends. For instance, a particular runway might have a higher rate of aborted landings when fog is present. Regulators noticing this could improve lighting and add more time between landings.

Safety audits by outside firms. The International Air Transport Association, an industry trade group, started an audit program in 2003. Airlines prove to the industry and each other that they have proper maintenance and safety procedures. It's also a way for airlines to seek lower insurance premiums, which have dropped over the past 10 years.

An experienced work force. Air traffic controllers, pilots, and maintenance crews -- particularly in North America and Europe -- have been on the job for decades. Their experience is crucial when split-second decisions are made and for instilling a culture of safety in younger employees.

Luck. Safety experts discount the effect of chance. However, it takes just one big accident -- especially now with megajets such as the Airbus A380, which is able to carry up to 853 passengers -- to ruin an otherwise good period for safety.

The most recent fatal U.S. crash was Colgan Air Flight 3407, a regional flight operating under the name Continental Connection. The 2009 crash killed all 49 people on board and a man in the house the plane hit near Buffalo.

All fatal crashes in the United States in the past decade occurred on regional airlines. The most recent deadly crash involving a larger airline was American Airlines Flight 587 in 2001.

It crashed moments after taking off from New York, killing 265.

The poor economy might also have improved safety.

Bill Voss, chief of the Flight Safety Foundation, said that during a boom period, airlines tend to grow quickly.

That, he said, can mean weaker standards for safety and for pilots. "We tend to see people being pushed forward perhaps a little too early, before they're ready," Mr. Voss said.



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