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Airline Travel

Although air disasters are quite rare, they are of such magnitude and consequence that applicable laws and regulations should be addressed.

Under its International Aviation Safety Assessment Program (IASA), the FAA, as part of its responsibility to inform the public about safety issues, assesses the civil aviation authority of each country with service to the United States. The assessments are to determine whether or not the civil aviation authority (CAA) overseeing airline operations to and from the United States meets the safety standards set by the United Nations body known as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The FAA has established two ratings for the status of these civil aviation authorities at the time of the assessment: compliance with ICAO standards, noncompliance with ICAO standards. CAAs are the FAA’s foreign counterparts. The IASCA assessment program began in 1992.

The FAA also conducts domestic Flight Operational Quality Assurance Programs (FOQA) through the use of in-flight recorders. The data logged by the recorders is used to evaluate in-flight operations, including standard operating procedures (SOPs), flight training, and cockpit workload. In the event of an accident, the FOQA program assists in interpreting the events leading up to the accident in order to determine causation.

In the unfortunate event of a domestic air accident, the NTSB is called in to investigate. Based upon its findings, injured persons or victims’ survivors may have causes of action based on several legal theories including products liability against the aircraft manufacturers; negligent maintenance and repair; negligence of pilot and crew; negligence of ground support/air traffic control departments; negligent maintenance of airport runways or facilities, etc.

The Warsaw Convention applies to airlines passengers ticketed on an international itinerary, whether or not the accident occurs on the domestic part of a continuous international trip. In El AL Israel Airlines, Ltd. v. Tsui Yuan Tseng, 97-475 (1999), the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the Warsaw Convention’s “exclusive” control over a passenger’s right of recovery in U.S. courts for “physical injuries” sustained on international flights.

This created an inequity among passengers on the same flight, as those who were ticketed for a shorter (domestic) leg of the international trip (i.e., traveling between two U.S. cities on an international itinerary that continued beyond the second city) did not fall under the purvey of the Warsaw Convention. Until 1997, the maximum allowable recovery for damages against the airlines subject to the 70-year-old Warsaw Convention provisions was $75,000 (excepting actions grounded in “willful misconduct”). Families of domestic passengers on the same flight, conversely, could recover millions of dollars.

In 1997, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) joined with the U.S. DOT to sponsor an international agreement which removes the $75,000 limit of liability and permits passengers to recover full compensatory damages according to the laws of their place of permanent residence (domicile). More than 120 airlines have signed the agreement.


Inside Airline Travel