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An incredibly safe year for air travel

By Brett Snyder, Special to CNN
updated 1:36 PM EST, Mon January 9, 2012
Air travel safety continued to improve in 2011.
Air travel safety continued to improve in 2011.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In the U.S., not a single passenger was killed in an accident on a passenger flight
  • Eighteen scheduled passenger flights had 373 fatalities in 2011
  • Russia was the worst offender, with three accidents killing 56 people

Editor's note: Brett Snyder is the founder of air travel assistance site Cranky Concierge, and he writes the consumer air travel blog The Cranky Flier.

(CNN) -- This is starting to sound like a broken record, but once again, 2011 was an incredibly safe year for commercial air travel.

In fact, there were only 373 fatalities on 18 scheduled passenger flights worldwide. Considering that there are roughly 10 million flights per year in the U.S. alone, this is a remarkable feat.

Looking at the Aviation Safety Network's database, we see that there were 106 "occurrences" of all kinds during the year worldwide. This number includes military and cargo aircraft accidents as well as airplanes on test flights. One of the accidents last year was actually with an illegal crop-dusting operation in Russia. So this is pretty detailed.

Including all those various occurrences, 50 in total had fatalities; many of the rest were things like edging over the end of the runway. But once we narrow that number down again to just scheduled passenger flights, we get 18.

Now, 18 fatal accidents still sounds like a lot. After all, could you imagine hearing about one or two major accidents every month? Most of these, however, probably never made the news here in America.

In the U.S., not a single passenger was killed in an accident on a scheduled passenger flight the entire year. There was one tiny scheduled flight that crashed in Alaska, killing the pilot, but both passengers survived. A couple of bush flying accidents in Northern Canada claimed three lives as well, but that was it for this immediate part of the world.

But wait, weren't there some newsmakers in the U.S. this year? Sure, you heard about the Southwest 737 that had the fuselage tear open at cruising altitude, but everyone walked away in good shape. (OK, maybe nerves were rattled.)

The rest of the accidents happened in primarily developing areas.

The worst offender over the past year has been Russia, where three accidents killed 56 people. This was in addition to several landing accidents that were not fatal and one major crash of a charter flight that killed an entire professional hockey team. Though this does not make flying in Russia unsafe, it certainly was one of the hotspots that should cause alarm for Russian aviation officials.

There were two accidents in Indonesia as well as one in Congo. These were on airlines that have been put on the banned list by the European Union for being unsafe, so many people wouldn't even consider flying them in the first place.

There was an accident on a domestic flight in Iran, one on a tourist flight in Nepal, one on a prop in Papua New Guinea and five on turboprops in Latin America. In Europe, there was only one, a turboprop that crashed in Ireland in bad weather.

You're probably wondering what caused these accidents. As usual, none of these was caused by a single issue, but most of them were operating in challenging weather conditions at the time.

In some of the more remote places in the world, they don't have the same kind of weather detection systems or the conservative procedures that we have here in the U.S., and that can make a difference in the accident rate.

Looking through all this data, one thing is clear. Flying remains an incredibly safe mode of transport. Although there will always be an effort to get to zero accidents, that simply won't happen with something as complex as aircraft operations. But each year, more aircraft take to the skies, and the chances of something going wrong continue to drop.

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