NEW YORK // While there are still some corners of the world where flying is risky, 2011 was a good year to fly.
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 only accounts for three per cent of world air traffic but had 14 per cent of fatal crashes.
Still, 2011 had the second-fewest number of fatalities worldwide, according to the Flight Safety Foundation, with 507 people dying in crashes. Seven out of 28 planes in fatal crashes were on airlines already prohibited from flying into the European Union because of known safety problems. (There were fewer fatalities in 2004 - 323 - but there were also fewer people flying)
There are a number of reasons for the improvements:
• The industry has learnt 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 manufactures 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 there is fog. 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 programme in 2003. Airlines prove to the industry and each other that they have proper maintenance and safety procedures. It is also a way for airlines to seek lower insurance premiums, which have also dropped over the past 10 years
• An experienced workforce. 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.
Former US Airways Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger - who spent three decades as an airline pilot - was praised for his skill after safely ditching a plane in the Hudson River in 2009. Both engines failed because of a bird strike but all 155 passengers and crew survived
• Luck. Safety experts discount the effect of chance. However, it takes just one big accident - especially now with mega-jets such as the Airbus A380, which is able to carry up to 853 passengers - to ruin an otherwise good period for safety.
"Was Chesley Sullenberger lucky or skilful?" says Perry Flint, a spokesman with the International Air Transport Association. "It was luck that it was daylight, but how many geese do you know that are flying south in the pitch black of two in the morning? So it was also luck that he hit them. Bad luck."
In the US, the past 10 years have been the best in the country's aviation history with 153 fatalities. That's two deaths for every 100 million passengers on commercial flights, according to government accident data.
The improvement is remarkable. 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.