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While U.S. air passengers experienced no fatal accidents last year, it was also a relatively good year for flying worldwide. In fact, 2010 was the safest in aviation history, at least if you were a passenger flying on Western-built jets. All this according to the International Air Transport Association (www.iata.org), the arbiter of what's what for nearly all airlines in the world.

According to IATA, the 2010 global accident rate was only 0.61 accidents per million flights, meaning about one accident for every 1.6 million flights. There were 17 accidents involving Western-built jet planes, down from 19 the year before. This number is what IATA calls "hull losses," meaning the plane is destroyed or damaged beyond repair.

Flying in Africa

During the year, IATA says there were 786 deaths in passenger planes -- more than the 685 in 2009, but in a slightly smaller number of accidents. North America had low rates of accidents, and Africa had the worst (or higher) rates. Its accident rate was 7.41, caused by four Western-built planes crashing on that continent. Even so, the 2010 rate for Africa was lower than the 9.94 rate of 2009.

According to Giovanni Bisignani, the director general of IATA, "flying must be equally safe in all parts of the world … an accident rate in Africa that is over 12 times the global average is not acceptable."

I had a friend living in Nigeria for quite a while, who told me that whenever he wanted to depart the Lagos airport on whatever airline, the chaos at the airport was so bad that he had to send an employee to actually get on the plane and sit in the seat intended for my friend. This employee apparently would hold that seat until my friend could arrive at the proper departure time and claim his seat. This practice would ensure that no interloper came out and simply took possession of the seat, even without a boarding card, which previously had happened too often.

Flying in South Asia

Most of us who travel extensively have had experiences that terrified us at one time or another. For example, I once was perturbed to learn that the guy sitting next to me at a bar in Calcutta was the pilot of my later flight to Kathmandu. (He seemed sober the next morning, however, so I took the flight. As we approached the Kathmandu airport, however, the flight attendant believed I would like to see through the window as she pointed out the wreckage of three or four other airplanes "that didn't make it on landing.")

Airline Safety: Worldwide Stats

About 21% of the worldwide accidents, IATA says, occurred when a plane left the runway during take-offs and landings. They call these instances "runway excursions," making them sound like picnics in the park. Some planes, IATA says, approach too fast, too high, or touch down too late. Sometimes the runway is wet. In my opinion, accident reports seem to indicate that landing results in more accidents than take-offs do.

Nevertheless, IATA found that 2.4 billion people flew safely on 36.8 million flights in 2010. There were 94 accidents for all types of aircraft (Eastern- and Western-built), up from only 90 in 2009. There were 23 fatal accidents for all passenger plane types, compared to 18 in 2009.

But, they say, 2010 was the safest year in history for those of us on Western-built jets. Well, now China is building passenger jets, the news tells us. Let's hope these planes are as safe as "Western-built" airplanes when they take to the skies.

Note: the author is pro bono vice president of the not-for-profit charity, the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers, www.iamat.org.