thPublic confidence in the safety of air travel in this country is growing, though many people still harbor doubts.

In what may be some good news for the travel industry, the 43 percent who say in an AP-AOL travel poll that plane flights are very safe is somewhat higher than other surveys taken since the 9/11 attacks. As recently as this summer, the highest satisfaction levels with air safety were recorded in the 30s.

Men are twice as likely as women to feel very confident about air travel, according to the new poll, which was taken just over five years after terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

When traveling, "you just get on the plane, but it's hard not to think about it," said Casey McFadden, a young mother from Highland Heights, Ky. "Before 9/11, you just had to worry about crashing, but now you wonder who's sitting beside you."

More than half, 55 percent, expressed some concerns about air travel safety — 42 percent said flying is somewhat safe, 8 percent said not too safe and 5 percent said it was not safe at all.

After suffering sharp losses in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the air travel industry has recovered enough that it has seen record numbers of passengers. But the growth over the five years is less than was anticipated before the terrorist attacks, and that has affected airlines' earnings, said John Heimlich, chief economist for the Air Transport Association.

Travel by train and car have grown more appealing for short-distance trips as air travel has become more complicated by security concerns and regulations on what passengers can bring on board planes.

In August, the foiling by British police of a terrorist plot to bomb planes bound for this country heightened tensions. Liquids, lotions and gels were banned from airliner cabins after the plot was foiled, though those restrictions have now been eased somewhat.

About a third of respondents said the rules about what can be taken onto planes are confusing, according to the poll of 1,000 adults taken Sept. 26-28. Most don't think the most recent changes affected their safety one way or another.

"They seem to do a lot of stupid stuff," said Chip Holmes, a resident of Sacramento, Calif. "Those kinds of decisions make me feel less safe."

People are evenly split on whether airport security is consistent from one airport to the next — another factor in the unease about flying.

The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

For Charles Mitchell, a resident of Roaring River, N.C., traveling by car has always been the best way to visit friends and family while on vacation.

"Since the terrorist thing, I've never even considered flying," Mitchell said.

Those in the poll said safety is their top concern when planning a vacation. They put it ahead of relaxation, cost, activities and entertainment — even visiting family and friends.

Among the AP-AOL travel poll's other findings besides those on security:

_Western Europe and the Caribbean are the two most popular getaways outside the country.

_The beach and mountains are more popular than major cities and theme parks.

_Less than half, 44 percent, say they plan to take a vacation over the next 12 months.

_Seven in 10 like to book their vacation plans several months in advance or more — learning about their vacation choice and lining up the best deals.

_Half, 49 percent, have booked a flight or vacation trip online. More than half, 53 percent, say they visit two to three sites before buying, while 26 percent look at up to five sites.

For some, the careful vacation planning is as much fun as the actual trip — a diversion from the day-to-day routine as they read travel articles and search the Web for information.

"Planning for vacations makes me feel good," said Katherine Burbridge of New Port Richey, Fla., a dedicated traveler who plans to go to Spain this January. "I'm working toward a goal. Vacations are very important to me, I want to see other places besides the United States."