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Airplane safety in the United States better than ever, data shows

Boarding an airplane has never been safer.

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 an Associated Press analysis of government accident data.

The improvement is remarkable. Just a decade earlier, at the time the safest, passengers were 10 times as 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 consider this: You are more likely to die driving to the airport than flying across the country. There are more than 30,000 motor-vehicle deaths 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," says Todd Curtis, a former safety engineer with Boeing and director of the Airsafe.com Foundation.

The improvements came 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.

But safety remained a priority. No advertisement of tropical beaches can supplant the image of charred metal scattered across a field.

There are still some corners of the world where flying is risky. 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's nations only account for 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. Seven out of 28 planes in fatal crashes were on airlines already prohibited from flying into European Union airspace because of known safety problems. (There were fewer fatalities in 2004 -- 323 -- but there were also fewer people flying then.)

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

In fact, all fatal crashes in the U.S. in the past decade occurred on regional airlines, which are separate companies flying smaller planes under brands such as United Express, American Eagle and Delta Connection. 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.