The headline on a story yesterday about aviation accident statistics incorrectly stated that the 1987 airline accident rate was the highest in 13 years. The accident rate, expressed as the number of accidents per 100,000 departures, has been declining since 1983 although it rose slightly in 1987 over 1986. The 31 airline accidents in 1987 were the highest number in 13 years. (Published 1/14/88)

U.S. airlines, flying scheduled flights in large aircraft, had 31 accidents last year -- the most in 13 years -- including four crashes that killed 231 people, the government reported yesterday.

Aviation accident statistics released by the National Transportation Safety Board show that the accident rate for major airlines and commuter carriers rose slightly last year over 1986, while the rate for air taxis and general aviation declined.

Airlines experienced the most accidents since 1974 when there were 42, the NTSB said. The board noted that the number of departures, used to measure the growth in flights, has increased by almost 50 percent since then.

Among commuter carriers, 35 accidents last year claimed 58 lives. It was the commuters' most accidents since 1980.

Meanwhile, accidents involving small private aircraft dropped for the fifth consecutive year, from 2,581 in 1986 to 2,420 last year, the NTSB said. The number of fatalities also declined, from 955 deaths in 1986 to 788 in 1987.

Ted Lopatkiewicz, an NTSB spokesman, cautioned that the board has not analyzed the data or detected trends in the accident rate. Board Chairman Jim Burnett long has argued that aircraft accidents do not necessarily provide a good means for measuring aviation safety because accidents, compared with the number of flights, occur infrequently.

The NTSB measures statistics for its annual summary of aviation accidents three ways: miles flown, aircraft hours flown and number of departures. For the airlines, the accident rate in 1987 was 0.430 per 100,000 departures. By comparison, the accident rate last year for the commuter airlines was 1.43 per 100,000 departures.

NTSB statisticians pointed out that the Dec. 7 crash of Pacific Southwest Airlines jet, which killed 43 persons, was included in the crash total but excluded from accident-rate statistics because investigators concluded that no airworthiness issues, such as weather, mechanical malfunctions or pilot error, were involved.

Investigators believe the plane was brought down by a vengeful fired PSA employe who shot the pilots.

The other fatal U.S. airline accidents included the April 13 crash of a Buffalo Airways Boeing 707 in Kansas City in which four people died; the Aug. 16 crash of a Northwest Airlines MD80 in Detroit in which 156 people died, and the Nov. 15 crash of a Continental Airlines DC9 in Denver that killed 28.

William F. Bolger, president of the Air Transport Association, the lobby group for major airlines, cautioned that the 1987 statistics are being compared with 1986, a year in which there were no passenger fatalities on U.S. carriers. The ATA does not count the 1987 midair collision between a private plane and an Aeromexico jetliner over Cerritos, Calif., in which 82 people died.