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GAO discussed small air carrier aircraft safety, stressing that flying with American commercial air carriers is one of the safest means of transportation. However, GAO noted that there is a large difference in the accident rates among the three classes of air carriers. During a 6-year period, the accident rate per 100,000 hours flown by commuter carriers was over seven times that of large scheduled air carriers, and the accident rate for unscheduled air taxis was over 18 times higher than that of large scheduled carriers. GAO also said that 90 percent of the commuter and air taxi passenger accidents recorded during the period 1980-82 occurred in aircraft with nine or fewer seats. GAO noted that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has airworthiness standards and operating rules that differ according to aircraft capacity and that the FAA standards for aircraft with nine or fewer seats are less stringent than those for larger aircraft. GAO also believes that the environment in which small air carrier aircraft operate bears significantly on the level of safety they can achieve. Small commuter aircraft average twice as many take-offs and landings per hours flown as do large air carrier aircraft, and most accidents occur during take-offs and landings. In addition, small air carrier aircraft serve more remote airports, with fewer navigational aids, and spend more time flying at lower altitudes. GAO found that there are two basic reasons why small air carrier aircraft regulations have not been strengthened. First, small air carriers play a relatively minor role in air transport, accounting for only 1 to 2 percent of annual enplanements. Second, imposing higher standards on small air carrier aircraft could create an insurmountable economic burden for small air carriers, possibly destroying the industry and depriving the general public of needed air transportation. However, GAO noted that the aforementioned 1 to 2 percent of annual enplanements represents more than 2 million passengers and believes that the situation warrants FAA attention.

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