Last year was one of the safest in aviation history, with the lowest number of crashes in 44 years, an independent watchdog said Wednesday.
There were 136 serious accidents in 2007 — the fewest since 1963 — the Aircraft Crashes Record Office said.
The Geneva-based organization said 965 people died in plane crashes in 2007 — a drop of 25 percent from the previous year.
Meanwhile, preliminary estimates by the International Air Transport Association show air travel increased by over 3 percent in 2007, to about 2.2 billion passengers.
While industry experts differ on just how safe last year was — it depends on what you classify as a serious accident — they agree that the overall trend in airline safety is good.
"We're operating at such a high level of safety that even one or two accidents can skew the numbers tremendously," IATA spokesman Anthony Concil told The Associated Press.
The July 17 crash in Brazil of a Tam Linhas Aereas SA jetliner, which slammed into a building in Sao Paulo — killing 199 people — was the worst single accident of 2007.
Europe, which had no major accidents in 2007, and North America, where the figure of 34 accidents is relatively low compared to the large number of flights, are leading the way on safety, said Concil.
According to a tally of incidents listed on the Aircraft Crashes Record Office Web site, the number of people killed in airline accidents in the United States dropped from 75 in 2006 to 66 last year.
If systems on the ground in the U.S. were brought to the same level as those in modern planes, then it would even be possible to have more takeoffs and landings from the same airports without endangering safety, Concil said. The added benefit would be fewer delays at notorious hotspots such as New York's John F. Kennedy and New Jersey's Newark airport, he said.
Concil said other parts of the world still have a long way to go on safety, noting the loss of over 120 lives last year in two separate accidents in Indonesia as well as Africa's continuing poor safety record, exemplified by the crash of a Kenya Airways plane in May with 114 fatalities.
According to Jim Burin, director of technical programs at the Washington-based Flight Safety Foundation, air traffic officials in developing countries are struggling with limited numbers of trained staff and poor implementation of existing rules.
"The oversight, particularly in Africa, is not as strong as it could be" and many of the planes are old and poorly maintained, said Burin.
By contrast he said, the airline industry in Indonesia has become a victim of its own success —"growing so rapidly that sometimes they get ahead of themselves."
China, where the number of flights is also increasing at a phenomenal rate each year, is much stricter when it comes to airline regulation and has a more successful safety record to show for it, Burin said.
Other countries, such as Russia, managed to turn their industry around last year after two very serious accidents in 2006.
"Russia went from the worst in the league to the best" by implementing a series of safety measures based on IATA standards, said Concil.
The industry group recently agreed to exclude any carrier that does not undergo an audit every two years, and customers will soon be able to see on the IATA Web site which companies have done so and which have not, he said.
For Burin the fear of accidents will always be present among some passengers, whatever the safety figures show.
"If you told someone your chances are one in five million of something happening, I don't think people would be too concerned, yet we have a crash or two and everyone gets worried about flying" he said.
The aim, said Burin, should be to bring global accident levels down to those in the U.S. and Europe, where incidents happen in only one in 1.5 million departures. Only about a third of those result in casualties.
One of the ways of doing this is to raise the retirement age of pilots in order to keep the most experienced crew in the cockpit, said Burin.
"This is one of the first times in aviation history where some parts of aviation are actually restricted by people assets," he said.
According to IATA the industry is currently some 4,000 pilots a year short of what it needs to keep up with rising air traffic demand.