U.S. airlines experienced one of their safest years ever in 1997, just a year after one of its deadliest.

The National Transportation Safety Board said three people died in accidents involving major American carriers last year. Only two were passengers.By comparison, there were 342 deaths on major American air carriers in 1996.

The nation's smaller air carriers recorded 46 fatalities last year, up from 14 in 1996. There were 40 deaths on air taxis, down from 63 a year earlier. And private planes recorded 646 fatalities in 1997, up slightly from 631 a year earlier.

The drop in deaths on major carriers came despite an increase in the total number of accidents to 42, up 10. That rise was at least partly a result of a change in definition resulting in more aircraft being classified as major carriers.

The total of three deaths - two passengers - is the best since 1993 when there was just one airline fatality and that was not a passenger.

Last year's two passenger deaths were a Continental Airlines passenger who fell through an open catering door while boarding the flight and a woman killed when a United Airlines flight encountered sharp turbulence. The third death was a Delta Air Lines ground crew member who was run over by a plane's nosewheel.