WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of civil aviation accidents in the United States fell by 8 percent last year, according to preliminary statistics released Tuesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board reported that civil aviation accidents declined from 1,864 in 2003 to 1,715 last year. There were also 9 percent fewer deaths in 2004 - 635, down from 695 the year before.
''There is a single strong common thread among safety that's woven among every aspect of aviation, from the design of the aircraft through the systems on board to the training the pilots receive,'' said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Greg Martin. ''The payoff is the safest three years in aviation history.''
Most aviation fatalities resulted from accidents involving private planes and on-demand air taxis, but the overall accident rate for both kinds of aircraft has been improving over the past few decades.
Martin said the aviation community has been taking safety lessons learned from heavy transport aircraft and applying them to smaller planes.
There were 68 accidents involving air taxis, or charter planes, last year, seven fewer than the 75 reported the year before. The number of people who died in air taxi accidents rose 55 percent last year, to 65, from 42 the previous year.
The accident rate, however, fell from 2.56 per 100,000 flight hours in 2003 to 2.21 in 2004. That was just slightly worse than the best year ever for air taxis, 1998, when the accident rate was 2.03 per 100,000 flight hours.
Paul Czysz, professor emeritus of aviation and engineering at St. Louis University, said one reason for the improving safety record of charter planes is that more experienced pilots are now flying them.
''What you're seeing is a lot of military pilots come into the pilot market, especially the Navy pilots, who are trained to fly in all kinds of ungodly weather and put that thing down on that postage stamp,'' Czysz said. He also said pilots from large airlines, which have been cutting their work forces, are now flying on-demand aircraft.
Private planes were also involved in fewer crashes last year. The accident rate fell from 6.77 per 100,000 flight hours to 6.22, the lowest recorded by the NTSB since it began keeping statistics in 1975. There were 1,715 general aviation accidents in 2004, down from 1,864 the year before.
The FAA's Martin said the agency has learned much about improving general aviation safety from the Capstone Project, which focuses on adopting modern aviation technology in Alaska, where many people travel on small private planes.
An improving economy also mean pilots are flying newer, safer aircraft, Martin said.
There was only one fatal crash of a scheduled U.S. airline in 2004. On Oct. 20, a Corporate Airlines twin-engine turboprop crashed into the woods on approach to the Kirksville Regional Airport in Missouri, killing 13 people.