Aviation law encompasses a complex body of laws consisting of various international treaties, federal standards and regulations, as well as many different statutes from every state in the U.S.
Internationally, aviation law is governed by three major treaties:
Each treaty establishes or builds upon numerous aviation-related issues, including liability, recovery limits, jurisdiction, safety and passengers’ rights.
Many aviation accidents involving international flights can be especially challenging because the victims and their families can be from several different countries. Additionally, defendants — including carriers, aircraft manufacturers and air traffic agencies — often operate or are headquartered in different nations. Compounding the complexity is the fact that not every country is signed on to the same treaties, and some are not signatories of any.
These discrepancies are apparent in cases such as AirAsia Flight 8501. The Indonesia-based aircraft carrying 162 passengers and crew was en route from Indonesia to Singapore when it crashed soon after takeoff. Indonesia is a signatory of only the Warsaw Convention of 1929, which means all plaintiffs were subject to the limited — and today considered rather low — liability limits stipulated by the treaty. Indonesia did not agree to the Hague Protocol, which raised those limits, nor did they sign on to the IATA Agreement (otherwise known as the Chicago Convention) or to the Montreal Convention, which removed the limitations entirely unless the airline can prove they were not negligent.
The different treaties can also affect jurisdiction, depending on the destination of the passenger, the passenger’s home country, or where the passenger’s ticket was purchased. Again, in the AirAsia Flight 8501 disaster, the families of passengers with round-trip tickets to Singapore can bring a suit under the Montreal Convention; however, those with round-trip or one-way tickets that originated in Indonesia will be limited by the Warsaw Convention.
Neither the Warsaw Convention nor the Montreal Convention contains a damages law, and the courts having jurisdiction over the claims will have to decide what damages law governs each plaintiff's claim. Given that different jurisdictions may have very different damages laws and standards of recovery, the recovery levels would likely differ widely...
There is an array of jurisdiction choices outlined by the treaties; defendants will often argue for dismissal of suits under the forum non conveniens doctrine in an attempt to have the case remanded to a jurisdiction with low recovery limits.
On the federal level, several acts of Congress have been passed to address a wide range of issues. Those acts include:
- Air Commerce Act (1926)
- Civil Aeronautics Act (1938)
- Federal Aviation Act (1958), which created the Federal Aviation Administration
- Airline Deregulation Act (1978)
- General Aviation Revitalization Act (1994)
Each of these bills was written to create or unify aviation regulations across the country and expand the federal government’s oversight of the aviation industry. In many cases, these federal laws will preempt state laws, whether through expressed or implied preemption.
There are other acts as well that, although not directly related to aviation, do have aspects that can be relevant to aviation lawsuits, including the Death on the High Seas Act, the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) and the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
Because of the vital role aviation plays in the military, there are several applicable laws that can affect aviation litigation involving aircraft operated by the government and government contractors. The Feres Doctrine and the Government Contractor Defense, which is an exemption in the FTCA, both grant the U.S. government immunity from litigation.
Lastly, several state laws could apply to an aviation lawsuit, in particular state negligence statutes and state products liability standards, as well as wrongful death and personal injury damages laws.