Continental plane crash ends remarkable aviation safety streak

The fatal crash Thursday of a Continental Airlines (CAL) flight in Buffalo ended one of the more remarkable streaks in the history of modern aviation.

According to Bloomberg News, the accident "ended a stretch of more than two years without a fatality aboard a U.S. airline flight, the first such run of aviation safety since the dawn of the jet age in the 1950s, according to federal transportation officials."

Last month, Bush administration Transportation Secretary Mary Peters touted the statistic in a speech. One day later, a US Airways Group Inc. (NYSE: LCC) flight miraculously avoided tragedy when Captain Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III made a textbook landing in New York's Hudson River. Federal officials suspect that the crash was caused by geese getting sucked into the engines.

Federal officials are still investigating the cause of the Buffalo crash. Apparently, the pilot gave no hint of trouble before the accident, which killed 50 people. Ironically, Continental's stock soared Thursday after it was upgraded to a Buy by Merrill Lynch, which argued that the carrier would benefit from lower fuel prices.

Headlines about crashes always make people nervous, even though flying remains remarkably safe. At the same time, the two crashes highlight the economic reality of the airlines. For one thing, as profits from airlines get squeezed, interest in flying smaller, more fuel-efficient aircraft grows. And fewer airlines are flying to smaller cities. Some towns are being left without airline service at all.

So people can continue to fly with peace of mind . . . if not much room.

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