About 7,000 aircraft are buzzing in the skies over the United States at any given moment, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Fortunately for the people aboard those planes -- at least the big commercial kind -- as Travel went to press late last week, 2011 was on track to have the best-ever safety record for commercial passenger flights.

In a move that could keep that streak going strong in the United States, the FAA recently passed new rules designed to ensure that pilots are well rested and, presumably, alert when they enter the cockpit.

Through Nov. 30, 22 accidents caused the deaths of 486 fliers last year, according to the International Air Transport Association. The global trade group, representing 240 airlines, reports that commercial Western-built planes experienced slightly fewer than one accident per 3 million flights in 2011, making it the safest year in the post World War II era. There have been steady safety improvements during the past decade. "This is not an anomaly but rather a long-term trend," said IATA spokesman Perry Flint.

On Dec. 21, the FAA gave pilots of commercial passenger jets a holiday present of sorts. The agency announced sweeping updates of work rules for pilots that limit the amount of flight time to eight or nine hours. The rules also require a rest period of at least 10 hours between flights; it had been eight. Airlines will have two years to implement the new rules.

According to the FAA, the move will cost the aviation industry $297 million, a cost that could eke its way into ticket prices, but here's hoping it will help keep those accident numbers down.

Send your questions or tips to travel editor Kerri Westenberg at travel@startribune.com, and follow her on twitter @kerriwestenberg.