Although air travel is relatively safe when compared to travel by automobile or train, injuries in flight do occasionally occur. Injuries may be as minor as a twisted ankle from attempting to reach the bathroom during turbulence, or severe, as from a crash. Anyone who has been injured during a plane ride should be aware of his or her potential rights. Sometimes the airline or its employees can be held responsible, but a victim must sort through complicated legal rules to determine whether they can recover monetary relief, and against whom. That is why it is important to seek the help of an experienced personal injury attorney soon after an injury is sustained on an airplane.

Determining Who Is Responsible

Airlines and air carriers are held to a high standard of care for their passengers. They are governed by the Federal Aviation Act, which does not create a federal cause of action, but does establish a certain standard of care. Although an airline is not an insurer of a passenger’s safety, it is responsible for even the slightest negligence on the part of its employees, and is required to do all that human care, vigilance and foresight reasonably can do under the circumstances to prevent injuries from happening. However, an injury in and of itself is not enough to conclude that the airline was negligent. There must be some minimum showing that the airline was at fault.

An airline or common carrier must exercise vigilance in all aspects of aviation, including operation, maintenance, inspection, loading, and boarding of the plane. For example, the airline is responsible for providing a safe passage to the restroom and to the exit. The airline may also be liable for injuries due to overloading of the aircraft. Further, the pilot in command is the sole authority responsible for safe operation of the aircraft, and is required to familiarize him or herself with all available information regarding the flight, including the weather conditions en route. The ground personnel are also responsible for the safe conduct of the aircraft, including proper inspection to establish that the airplane is in safe working condition. The airline can not rely upon government inspection of its planes. However, the airline can not be held accountable for latent defects in the aircraft that could not be discovered by inspection.

An airline’s duty, however, does not extend beyond the passenger’s disembarking from the aircraft. In addition, a carrier may not be liable for consequences from an inevitable accident or an act of God. If an accident is caused, not by human error, but by unforeseen events, recovery from the airline will not be possible. For example, turbulence may not always be possible to anticipate. However, the pilot does have a duty to check the weather conditions for the designated flight path, as mentioned above. If high amounts of turbulence are expected, airline employees may be required to alter or delay the flight.

If injuries are encountered on a flight, the passenger who is harmed may be bound by provisions in the ticket, requiring passengers to notify the airline of the victim’s claim within a stipulated period of time. If the passenger fails to notify the airline of the claim within the specified period of time, the carrier may be exempted from liability. An airline cannot, however, limit its liability for personal injuries to its passengers in most cases, because any such attempted limitation is generally considered contrary to public policy.

The airline may not be the only entity liable to passengers for injuries sustained in flight. The manufacturer, seller, or repairer of the aircraft or its equipment may be liable for defects that cause a malfunction of the aircraft. In addition, the air traffic controller owes a duty of care to passengers with respect to the operation of an air traffic control system. For example, air traffic controllers may be held responsible if they see a dangerous situation and fail to warn the pilot of it.

Passengers of small aircraft may also be awarded monetary relief from injuries sustained on an airplane. Although a private carrier is not held to the high standard of care as a large airline, the private carrier still has a duty to exercise caution. Even guests on a private aircraft can recover from the owner or pilot of an aircraft under certain circumstances.


Because air travel is so common these days, it is important for individuals to know what to do in case they are injured on a flight. The laws governing airlines, pilots, and owners of aircraft are complex, and it may be difficult for the average person to navigate the rules, which is why anyone injured on an airplane should consult legal counsel familiar with aviation law immediately. In addition, it is probably wise to consult a physician immediately. And, most importantly, all passengers should follow the instructions and advice given after boarding to prevent accidents from happening.

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