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The Claims are Paid, Now What? Subrogation!

The Claims are Paid, Now What? Subrogation!

by Scott Brooksby

“Sir, it is wrong to stir up law-suits; but when once it is certain that a law-suit is to go on, there is nothing wrong in a lawyer’s endeavoring that he shall have the benefit, rather than another.” –Samuel Johnson

Introduction

Subrogation is defined for present purposes as the substitution of one person in the place of another with respect to a lawful claim or right. Subrogation is the right that every insurance company reserves in all insurance policies to recover losses from a third-party who contributed to or caused the loss.  It is one of the oldest concepts in jurisprudence.  However, the doctrine is not well understood, even by lawyers and judges who may not deal with subrogation issues on a regular basis.

Webster’s defines subrogation as:

The assumption by a third party (such as a second creditor or an insurance company) of another’s legal right to collect a debt or damages

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/subrogation

Subrogation in the aviation context has important implications for insurers and insureds. When markets are rising, most carriers make money on their investments.  When markets are down, and especially when they crash, as they did in 2008 and 2009, carriers may lose money, in part because margins are somewhat limited by market performance.  However, subrogation claims, when carefully evaluated and handled, provide carriers a right to recover dollars that may be easier to collect than premium dollars.  Successful collection on subrogation claims may have significant impact on insurer financial performance.  Insureds also benefit from effective subrogation claims because ever-increasing deductibles can be recovered and result in better loss history and lower rates.

Brief Historical Overview: Roman Origins

Subrogation, as a legal concept, dates back to Roman times. Under the reign of Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-AD 138) Roman law began to shape the building blocks of subrogation.  The relation of suretyship could be created by stipulation.  Gary L. Wickert, The Societal Benefits of Subrogation https://www.mwl-law.com/defending-subrogation/. For broad historical perspective, see Saul Litvinoff, Subrogation, 50 La. L. Rev. (1990) http://digitalcommons.law.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5249&context=lalrev.

Although modern subrogation may have had its roots in Roman suretyship, scholars have generally noted that the Roman law required a more positive act to transfer rights before subrogation could occur. Therefore, many have raised the possibility that the modern doctrine arose somewhat independently of Roman and French antecedents as a purely English theory that seems to have had its origins in the courts of Equity.  M.L. Marasinghe, An Historical Introduction to the Doctrine of Subrogation: The Early History of the Doctrine I, 10 Val U.L. Rev. 45 (1975).

Commenting on Roman equity, one scholar expressed a view that subrogation was unknown to the Romans in the context in which it appears in the common law today. In Roman law, “subrogate” was a well-known term of constitutional law, providing for the replacement of one official by another or replacing one official’s actions with another’s action. Id., at 46, citing W.W. Buckland, Equity in Roman Law, 47-54 (1911).

Of subrogation, Buckland further reasoned that

“The corresponding right in English law, at least in case of a surety, amounts to actual subrogation, and is declared to be based on natural justice, no attempt being made to deduce it from any defined principle.” Id., citing Buckland at 54.

Therefore, under English common law, no express transference of rights has been required. Marasinghe, supra, at 46.

Brief History: Anglo-American Subrogation

“I do think that Magna Carta and international law are worth paying some attention to”

–Noam Chomsky

Despite its ancient roots, modern subrogation is a distinct concept, bearing little resemblance to the Roman version. It appears that the concept of subrogation was formally incorporated into the English common law in the Magna Carta, which provides:

Neither We nor Our bailiffs shall seize any land or rent for any debt so long as the debtor’s chattels are sufficient to discharge the same; nor shall the debtor’s sureties be distrained so long as the debtor is able to pay the debt. If the debtor fails to pay, not having the means to pay, then the sureties shall answer the debt, and, if they desire, they shall hold the debtor’s lands and rents until they have received satisfaction of the debt which they have paid for him, unless the debtor can show that he has discharged his obligation to them.  A.E. Dick Howard, Magna Carta, Text & Commentary 39 (rev. ed. 1998).

Although a complete historical analysis is far beyond the scope of this paper, the English judges linked subrogation to the equitable principle of contribution. Id., citing Pothier, Treatise on Obligation 259 (3d Amer. Ed. 1853).  By 1782 the common law courts had recognized the doctrine of subrogation and were using it “as if it had always been part of the common law of England.”  Marasinghe, at 49.  In Mason v Sainsbury, 3 Doug. 61, 64, 99 Eng. Rep. 525 (1782),  Lord Chief Justice Mansfield stated:   “Every day, the insurer is put in the place of the insured.  The insurer uses the name of the insured.” Id.

However, subrogation in the modern Anglo-American context has different meanings in different contexts. Modern subrogation can be generally categorized into three types:

Contractual subrogation, which is based on the contract between the parties such as subrogation language in an insurance policy. This is sometimes called “conventional subrogation”.

Equitable subrogation, sometimes called “legal subrogation,” is a product of equity. Equitable subrogation is not dependent on the existence of any contract assignment or privity.  It arises by operation of law out of the fairness doctrine.

Statutory subrogation is a mechanism that gives a carrier a right to recover certain benefits. Statutory subrogation may arise in areas such as workers compensation, hospital liens, and Medicare among other things.

Subrogation Waivers

A typical subrogation clause in an aviation insurance contract may read: “If we pay a claim under your policy, we will take over your right to recover that amount from any other person or organization.  You agree to cooperate with us and not to do anything that will interfere with our chances of recovery.”

The aviation industry is contract-intensive. Aviation-related contracts very often contain subrogation waivers in which each of the parties to the contract agrees to maintain its own insurance and also agrees to waive subrogation rights that may otherwise exist or arise with respect to insured losses. Waivers of subrogation most often apply to hull claims, but may sometimes be requested in product liability, airplane, airport, and hangar leases and pilot training.

A representative sample of a contractual subrogation waiver typically reads as follows:

“To the extent that any loss of any kind is covered or paid by any insurer, the contracting parties hereby waive subrogation or contribution rights against each other and their respective officers, agents and employees, and the contracting parties shall notify their respective insurers of this waiver of subrogation agreement and shall cause this waiver of subrogation agreement to be included in the insurance policies secured by each of the contracting parties.

A waiver of subrogation will result in the insurance carrier waiving the right to recover amounts paid under the policy from the person or entity that caused the loss. For example, a regional operator may contract with an FBO for pilot service.  Before a flight, the FBO requires execution of a subrogation waiver against the FBO related to the pilot service.  Assume further that the insurance company agrees to the waiver.  On the flight, the pilot fails to lower the landing gear, causing significant damage.  Without the waiver, the insurance company would have paid to repair the loss and then pursued a subrogation claim  against the FBO’s insurance.

As a practical matter, failure to provide a requested waiver may result in a failure to obtain the desired contract. However, before executing a waiver, insureds should recognize that there are significant downsides:

  • The insured could void the policy if the waiver is provided without receiving approval and endorsement from the insurer.
  • Losses that could have been subrogated may be fully charged against the policy loss record.
  • There may be a premium charge involved in providing the waiver.

The validity of waivers in aviation contracts has long been recognized. In Continental Manufacturing Corp. v. Underwriters at Lloyd’s of London, 185 Cal. App. 2d 545 (1960), the court held that an aviation insurer was not obligated to make a hull loss payment to its insured.  The insured had executed an earlier lease agreement that had released the party responsible, and therefore improperly defeated the insurer’s right of subrogation.

Aircraft Financing and Subrogation Waivers

Aircraft financiers typically require a waiver of subrogation to protect themselves from any action by the airline’s insurers who, at common law, are subrogated to all rights which the insured may have against third-parties, including financiers. Rod D. Margo, Aspects of Insurance in Aviation Finance, 62 J. Air L. & Com. 423, 455 (1996).  http://scholar.smu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1428&context=jalc

Under English law, a waiver of subrogation clause cannot be relied on by a person who is not a party to the insurance contract. Id., at 456, citing National Oilwell (U.K.) Ltd. v Davy Offhsore Ltd., (1993) 2 Lloyd’s rep. 582, 602-04 (Eng. Q.B.); Enimont Supply SA v. Chesapeake Shipping Inc. (the “Surf City”), (1995) 2 Lloyd’s Rep. 242 (Eng. Q.B.).  Therefore, unless the financier has also been endorsed as an additional insured under the airline’s policy, a waiver of subrogation will likely be unenforceable for lack of privity of contract.

A waiver of subrogation is probably unnecessary where the financier is endorsed as an additional insured under the airline’s policy because the policies make it clear that an insurer cannot exercise any such rights of subrogation against their own insureds. Margo, supra, at 456.

Subrogation and the Non-Owner Pilot

Whether it is the owner or a lessor, some broad form of all-loss insurance is generally carried by the party that has the care, custody and control of the aircraft, and is responsible for maintaining the airworthiness of the aircraft and has dispatch authority. A non-owner pilot is the pilot named under the policy other than the owner, a pilot using the aircraft under the open pilot warranty or “permissive pilot” provision ,or a renter.

The insurance contract is an agreement between the insurer and the purchaser of the policy. Unless the pilot is an employee of the owner, he may be subject to a subrogation action.  For this reason, as discussed above, many contract pilots and pilot service companies usually demand that the aircraft owner or named insured provide the contract pilot with a waiver of subrogation and status as an “additional insured” under the policy.

The Importance of Spoliation Considerations in Aviation Subrogation

Complex issues arise when the insurer elects to undertake a spoliation investigation. For example, physical evidence which may be critical to insured and uninsured losses may need to be collectively preserved.  It may not even be clear which components or evidence in a subrogation claim relate to insured and uninsured losses for some time.  At the outset, it is necessary to determine who is responsible for preservation of any relevant evidence.  In most subrogation cases the plaintiff must preserve the evidence, but in aviation cases that responsibility generally falls to a potential defendant.

In aviation cases, preservation of evidence in subrogation cases is more complicated because the NTSB has complete authority to assume custody of evidence relevant to its investigation. .  Pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 1901 et. seq., the NTSB also has the ability to limit party participation status.  See 49 C.F.R. § 831.11(a)(1).

Since the regulations also exclude persons who represent claimants or insurers from party status under 49 C.F.R. 831.11(a)(3), the NTSB and potential defendants typically have control of the investigation and the evidence during the important period between the time of the accident and the time the evidence is released to the owing party, often the hull insurer. The NTSB also prohibits lawyers or insurers or anyone whose role is the pursuit or defense of claims from participating in the process.

If the NTSB destroys, loses or otherwise is responsible for spoliation of the evidence, a lawsuit against the NTSB is precluded by the discretionary function exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act. See Black Hills Aviation Inc. v. United States, 34 F.3d 968, 976 (10th Cir. 1994).

The potential defendant manufacturers or other party participants to an NTSB accident investigation do not share the same protections or immunities. In Lowe v. TDU Industries, Inc., 2005 WL 1983750 (Cal. App 2d Dist. Aug. 18, 2005), an engine manufacturer lost the engine cylinders.  The court ruled that the plaintiff was entitled to an inference instruction that the cylinders would have supported plaintiff’s theory.  California, in particular, has created affirmative liability for spoliation of evidence.  See, e.g., Johnson v. United Services Automobile Association, 79 Cal. Rptr. 2d 234 (1998).

The Made Whole Doctrine

Among the many subrogation doctrines which is not well understood, and which takes many different state-specific forms, is the made whole doctrine. A complete discussion of the made whole doctrine is far beyond the scope of this article.

Because subrogation may lead to adverse consequences for insureds, the common law developed the made whole doctrine which limits the use of subrogation before an insured party receives full compensation for damages. As one scholar notes, the made whole doctrine is the “principal weapon used by contemporary courts to curb the harsh effect of contractual subrogation on the rights of the insured.”  Parker, Johnny C., The Made Whole Doctrine: Unraveling the Enigma Wrapped in the Mystery of Insurance Subrogation. Missouri Law Review, Vol. 70, 723, 723-775 (October, 2005) http://law.missouri.edu/lawreview/files/2012/11/Parker.pdf.

As originally developed, the made whole doctrine applied to subrogation, whether legal or conventional. Therefore, even where the insurer had paid all of the policy proceeds and included an expressed subrogation provision in the policy, the right to subrogation was stayed until the insured received complete compensation. Id., at 773.

However, many states have adopted a modified application of the made whole doctrine and have concluded that since the doctrine is of equitable origins and conventional subrogation is grounded upon a legal contract, the parties are free to agree that the rule does not apply. At least 14 jurisdictions have adopted a view that parties are free to agree that the made whole rule is inapplicable. Id.

The Anti-Subrogation Doctrine

Simply defined, the anti-subrogation doctrine provides that subrogation rights exist only as to third-parties.  The doctrine is a defense which provides that since the insurance company is standing in the shoes of its insured, it cannot sue its own insured, in whose shoes it stands.  The doctrine also prevents an insurer from pursuing a subrogation action against a third-party who qualifies as an additional insured.  The rule implicates public policy considerations, including the prevention of suits by insurers against insureds to recover for the very losses for which they have paid for coverage in the form of premiums and the avoidance of conflicts of interest.

Aviation insurance is a specialty line of coverage, often involving very large risks and more complex underwriting issues than most types of insurance. As a result, there are fewer aviation insurers, and the anti-subrogation doctrine may come into play more often.

If the potential defendant in a subrogation action is an insured or an additional insured on the same policy of insurance, a carrier paying a property damage claim cannot subrogate against an insured or additional insured on the same policy.

If the potential target of a subrogation action and the party sustaining the loss are both insured under different policies with the same insurer, there is a split of authority.

If a plaintiff property insurance carrier and a separate liability insurance carrier have both provided policies of insurance to the defendant, the anti-subrogation rule generally does not apply and subrogation is generally permitted if the companies are both members of the same family or group of companies.

Warranty Limitations That May Affect Subrogation Claims

Few lawyers enjoy working through situations that require analysis of the application of the economic loss rule. Although a complete discussion of the rule is far beyond the scope of this paper, it can be defined simply as the prohibition of the recovery of damages under tort theories such as negligence or strict liability when a product defect results in only economic loss, but does not cause personal injury or damage to any other property other than the product.  For a detailed explanation of the economic loss rule see Jamie Mayrose, “A “Simple” Explanation of the Economic Loss Rule”, Under Construction, Vol. 17, No. 3, Winter, 2016.  https://www.americanbar.org/publications/under_construction/2016/winter2016/economic_loss_rule.html

In its application, the economic loss rule precludes contracting parties from asserting tort causes of action as a means to recover economic or commercial losses arising out of a contract, and precludes a purchaser of a product from recovering from a manufacturer on a tort theory for damages that are solely economic.

The economic loss doctrine has implications in the context of aviation subrogation. In general, the economic loss doctrine applies to bar recovery if an allegedly defective part is part of the original bargain when an aircraft was purchased.  However, if the replacement part is not part of the original sale, the economic loss rule does not bar tort claims.  This is important in the context of aviation where contractual defenses such as warranty disclaimers and limitations of liability may severely restrict the ability to recover under contract theories.

The following warranty limitation is representative of the type of clause typically contained in many types of aviation-related contracts such as overhaul facilities:

Limited Warranty for Services and Components: _________ warrants that the services performed hereunder will comply with applicable FAA regulations in effect as of the date the work is performed (as interpreted by the FAA office having jurisdiction over the facility at which the work is performed) and will be free from defects in workmanship and material, including new components manufactured by ________, under normal use for one (1) year and for ninety (90) days on used components refurbished by ________ from date of installation. The warranty on all other new and used components shall be limited to the warranty provided by the supplying manufacturer or vendor, if any. This warranty does not apply to (i) normal wear and tear, (ii) the consequences of accident, negligence, abuse or misuse, or of repair, removal, reinstallation or alteration other than by ___________ and (iii) to Customer furnished parts or equipment or to work which, at Customers direction, was not performed in accordance with ____________ standard operating procedures. The sole and exclusive remedy of Customer, and ___________ sole and exclusive liability, with respect to this warranty is limited to repair or replacement (at _____________ option) of the nonconforming or defective work or component. Such repair or replacement shall be performed at a ___________ facility and Customer shall be responsible for transportation costs. THE FOREGOING WARRANTY IS IN LIEU OF, AND THE CUSTOMER HEREBY WAIVES, ALL OTHER WARRANTIES, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING, WITHOUT LIMITATION, IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY OR FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR USE.

Limitation of Liability: In no event shall ___________ be liable for any special, incidental, consequential and/or punitive damages, including, without limitation, loss of profits, loss of goodwill, loss of use, loss of time, diminution of value, or inconvenience, even if informed of the possibility of such damages. In the event _________ physically damages Customer’s property, Customer’s sole and exclusive remedy, and ____________ sole and exclusive liability, is limited to the repair or replacement (at ______________ option) of the damaged portion of the property.

As the representative limited warranty and limitations of liability provisions above make clear, pursuit of subrogation claims for the full award of damages which would be recoverable in the absence of such limitation provisions becomes much more questionable.

Conclusion

In addition to many other important subrogation principles, subrogation in the aviation context requires particularly careful economic evaluation, and budgeting.  Both pursuing and defending aviation subrogation cases in an economically rational manner requires careful adherence to litigation budgets.

The economics of aviation subrogation and the efficient pursuit of the intended economic offset or recovery, or the successful defense of a subrogation claim both require careful assessment of the potential recovery, the technical issues associated with proving causation, the impact of NTSB investigations and the other logistics of the potential claim, such as location of the wreckage, discovery, and witnesses.

In addition, the economics which may drive whether or not to pursue or defend a subrogation claim in the aviation context will be influenced by factors such as subrogation waivers, aircraft financing contracts, the made whole doctrine, complex conflict and ethical issues, and even the variations on policies covering pilots.

Pennsylvania Court Takes New Approach in Forum Non Conveniens Dispute

On December 5, 2016, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania denied the appeal of a trial court decision to grant a forum non conveniens motion to dismiss claims brought by European family members following a fatal plane crash. The court rejected the idea that plaintiffs’ choice of forum should be given “overwhelming deference.” The court also appears to have adopted an approach favoring the qualitative comparison of categories of evidence available in the U.S. and in the alternative foreign forum. Bochetto, et al., v Dimeling, Schreiver & Park, et al., 2016 PA Super 272, Lexis 729 (Dec. 5, 2016).

The case arose from the crash of a twin-engine Piper PA-34-220T Seneca V on September 15, 2009 near Castro Verde, Portugal. The aircraft, which was manufactured by Piper Aircraft in Florida, crashed during a nighttime training exercise, killing the three occupants including a Spanish flight instructor, a student pilot who was a Dutch citizen, and a student pilot with dual Dutch-Australian citizenship. The case was initially filed in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia. The plaintiffs alleged claims based on strict products liability, negligence, breach of express and implied warranties, fraud and civil conspiracy against 14 defendants, all of whom were located in the United States.

The manufacturer and some defendants filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to a Pennsylvania statute recognizing the doctrine of forum non conveniens, Pa.C.S. § 5322(e). Defendants argued that the aircraft was maintained in Portugal, the pilot was trained in Portugal, the underlying accident occurred in Portugal, the Portuguese government conducted the accident investigation, and all of the non-party witnesses and relevant documents were in Portugal, all of the decedents were from Europe, and the real parties in interest were from Europe.  The plaintiffs opposed the motion, countering that all the evidence related to the design and manufacture of the aircraft was located in the United States, the negligence claims against the foreign defendants were untenable, and the flight school had a strong presence in the United States.

The trial court granted the motion, and the plaintiffs appealed. Citing Pennsylvania law and Piper Aircraft Co. v. Reyno, 454 U.S. 235, 257–58 (1981), The Superior Court of Pennsylvania held that the trial court erred when it limited its discussion to those forum non conveniens factors that were specific to Pennsylvania, and did not address the network of connections to the United States as a whole. 2016 PA Super 272, Lexis 729 at *6.

The plaintiffs argued that they were due greater deference in their choice of forum in this case because “the choice was between Portugal, where no defendant or plaintiff is located, and the United States where all of the defendants reside, where the evidence supporting plaintiffs’ claims is maintained, and where the misconduct causing the accident occurred.” 2016 PA Super 272, Lexis 729 at *17.

The appellate court reasoned that although the plaintiffs were correct that their home countries of Spain, the Netherlands, and Australia may not present the most convenient forums, that did not mean that plaintiffs had “free choice” of any other forum since in a global case such as this, no one jurisdiction may stand out as convenient. The trial court was required to give some deference but not overwhelming deference to plaintiffs’ choice of forum.

The court analyzed the trial court’s methodology in balancing public and private interests, and noted that the trial court did conclude that some items weighed in favor of an American forum.  For example, evidence relating to aircraft design, original and subsequent American owners, and maintenance before the plane was sold to a European company were all located in the United States. The appellate court looked approvingly on the trial court’s comparison of the availability of other categories of evidence, such as the location of evidence related to more recent aircraft maintenance and pilot error in Portugal. The more relevant evidence was the documentation of maintenance and upkeep after the aircraft was sold to the Belgian company that leased it to the Portuguese flight school. By engaging in such a qualitative assessment of the evidence and its importance, rather than merely counting up items in a list, the appellate court found that the district court did not abuse its discretion and affirmed the dismissal of plaintiffs’ case.  2016 PA Super 272, Lexis 729 at * 22.

Birds, Pets, Lasers, Stowaways, and Other Hot Topics in Aviation

Hot topics in aviation litigation include birds, pets, lasers, and stowaways.  Each pose the danger of catastrophic mass torts.

Bird and animal strikes pose an increasing danger to commercial, military and general aviation.  Strikes result in death and serious injury to passengers and crew, and soaring costs for aircraft damage.  Bird strikes are the second leading cause of death in aviation accidents.

According to Boeing, the first bird strike was recorded by the Wright Brothers in 1905.  The greatest loss of life directly linked to a bird strike occurred on October 4, 1960, when a Lockheed L-188 flying as Eastern Air Lines Flight 375, flew through a flock of common starlings during take-off from Logan Airport, damaging all four engines. The plane crashed into Boston harbor killing 62 of the 72 passengers on board. http://www.boeing.com/commercial/aeromagazine/articles/2011_q3/4/.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

Other major bird strike incidents include:

  • United Airlines Flight 297. On November 23, 1962, a Vickers Viscount 745D crashed near Columbia, Maryland after striking a flock of whistling swans while cruising at 6,000 feet.  The impact caused the horizontal stabilizer to separate, leading to loss of control.  All seventeen people on board were killed.
  • Ethiopian Airlines Flight 604. On September 15, 1988, a Boeing 737-200 ingested a flock of speckled pigeons as it took off from Bahir Dar, Ethiopia.  Both engines failed immediately, and the ensuing belly landing caused a fire that killed 35 passengers.
  • Leadair UniJet. On January 20, 1995, a Dassault Falcon 20 sucked lapwings into the No. 1 engine on takeoff, which caused an uncontrolled engine failure and a fire in the airplane’s fuselage; all 10 people on board were killed.
  • S. Air Force Boeing E-3. On September 22, 1995 the AWACS aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff from Elmendorf AFB. The aircraft lost power in both port side engines after the engines ingested several Canada geese during takeoff.  The geese had been disturbed during the takeoff of a Hercules transport moments earlier.  After reaching 250 feet, the plane crashed about two miles from the runway, killing all 24 crew members on board.
  • Ryanair Flight 4102. On November 10, 2008 a Boeing 737-8AS on final approach to Rome Ciampino Airport sustained 90 bird strikes, all from starlings.  After one engine was damaged, and the other engine ingested birds, the crew managed an emergency landing.  There were 10 injuries.  The plane, which was only eight months old, was a total loss.
  • US Airways Flight 1549. On January 15, 2009 an Airbus A320-214 lost power in both engines after multiple strikes with Canada geese shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport.  About three minutes after the loss of all power, the flight crew conducted a water landing on the Hudson River.  150 passengers and five crew members sustained a total of 95 minor and five serious injuries.
  • PHI Inc., Charter. On January 4, 2009, a Sikorsky S-76C crashed into marshland about seven minutes after takeoff near Amelie, Louisiana, killing two pilots and six of the seven passengers. The helicopter’s impact with a red-tailed hawk jarred the fire suppression handles loose, which pushed the engine controls to idle, depriving the engines of fuel.

Boeing has compiled extensive data on bird strikes:

  • More than 219 people have been killed as a result of bird strikes since 1988.
  • Between 1990 and 2009, bird and mammal strikes cost the U.S. civil aviation complex $650 million per year.
  • The U.S. Air Force sustains approximately $333 million dollars in damage per year due to bird strikes.
  • About 5,000 bird strikes were reported by the Air Force in 2012.
  • About 9,000 bird and other wildlife strikes were reported for U.S civil aircraft in 2009.
  • The FAA has identified 482 species of birds involved in strikes from 1990-2012.
  • Between 2001 and 2011, 4066 engines were damaged in 3,935 bird strikes. This resulted in a wide range of outcomes including aborted takeoffs, engine shutdowns, and crashes.

http://www.boeing.com/commercial/aeromagazine/articles/2011_q3/4/.  (Last visited 4/19/16).  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131108-aircraft-bird-strikes-faa-radar.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

Factors Contributing to the Rise in Bird Strikes

  • The North American non-migratory Canada goose population increased from 1 million birds in 1990 to 4 million birds in 2009. Concentrations are particularly high at JFK airport and surrounding regions, with the ample grass and wetlands, but populations of various sizes are found near airports across the country.
  • A twelve pound Canada goose struck by an airplane moving at 150 miles per hour during takeoff generates the kinetic energy of a 1000 pound weight dropped from a height of ten feet.
  • Nesting populations of bald eagles increased from 400 pairs in 1970 to 13,000 pairs in 2010. Between 1990 and 2009, 125 bald eagle strikes were reported.  The body mass of a bald eagle is 9.1 pounds for males and 11.8 pounds for females.
  • Finally, the population of European starlings is now the second most prevalent bird species in America, numbering over 150 million. Often called “silver bullets,” they fly at high speed and have a body density that is 27 percent greater than gulls. http://www.boeing.com/commercial/aeromagazine/articles/2011_q3/4.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

Population Management Techniques

In January, 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 landed on the Hudson River after both engines ingested Canada geese.  New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared war on geese.  Suzanne Goldenberg, New York Declares War on Geese to Prevent Airport Bird Strikes, The Guardian (June 12, 2009) http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/jun/12/new-york-geese-cull.  (Last visited 4/19/16). A mayoral steering committee gave approval to the USDA to cull geese in a 450 mile area encompassing JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports.  Principal methods of population control include:

  • Each summer teams of USDA goose catchers capture geese which, in the molting condition cannot fly, including offspring which are then take to slaughterhouses and killed. Between 2009 and 2010, 2911 geese were killed.
  • The USDA reports that 80 percent of Canada geese are resident, and remain in place, rather than migrate. The government and airport operators strongly advocate for the culling of non-migratory birds.
  • Discouraging nesting and grazing.
  • Letting grass grow taller, planting unpalatable grasses, reducing standing rainwater, and oiling eggs to prevent hatching.
  • Firing pyrotechnics and propane cannons.
  • Use of chemical repellants.
  • Population exclusion.
  • Use of visual repellants.
  • Tactile repellants.

http://www.boeing.com/commercial/aeromagazine/articles/2011_q3/4/.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

Potential Liability for Airport Operators

Airport managers must exercise due diligence in managing wildlife hazards to avoid serious liability issues.  The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations requires Part 139-certificated airports experiencing hazardous wildlife conditions as defined in 14 C.F.R. Section 139.337 to conduct formal Wildlife Hazard Assessments.  The certificated airports must develop Wildlife Hazard Management Plans as part of the certification standards.  Airports are required to employ professional biologists trained in wildlife hazard management. 14 C.F.R. Section 139.337 and FAA Advisory Circular 150/5200-36.  Failure to comply with the regulations can give rise to liability for airport operators. https://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/airline_safety/pdfs/Summary%20Report%20WS%20Airport%20Wildlife%20Hazards%20Program%20FY%2008.pdf.  (Comprehensive overview of applicable regulations and methods, last visited 4/19/16).

The USDA’s Airport Wildlife Hazards Program plays a leading role in the supervision and management of wildlife strikes with aircraft.  Wildlife challenges are by no means limited to birds.  Airports across the country are struggling with wildlife management.  http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/hunting-fishing/2016/01/17/Keeping-wildlife-off-tarmac-is-big-job-at-Pittsburgh-International-Airport/stories/201601170140.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

In addition to reports of aircraft strikes involving nearly 500 bird species, other wildlife strikes reported during the last decade involved nearly 100 terrestrial animals including mongoose, bears, badgers, moose, pigs, burros, horses, and even camels, in addition to 137 reptile strikes.

For additional background information, see “Wildlife Strikes to Civil Aircraft in the United States, 1990-2001”, United States Department of Agriculture, Federal Aviation Administration, United States Department of Agriculture, July, 2012.  Report published for the Federal Aviation Administration Office of Airport Safety and Standards.    https://www.faa.gov/airports/airport_safety/wildlife/resources/media/bash90-11.pdf.  (Last visited 4/19/16).  http://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/pdf/bird-enthusiasts/birdstrikes.pdf.  (Alternate link, last visited 4/19/16).

Regulations for Aircraft and Engine Manufacturers

In response to the Eastern Airlines crash in Boston in 1960 mentioned above, The FAA issued Advisory Circular 33-1 “Turbine Engine Foreign Object Ingestion and Rotor Blade Containment Type Certification Procedures,” which provided guidance for compliance with FAA regulations §3313 and §3319 requiring that engine design minimize unsafe condition.  For additional information on the scope of required fan and engine construction, see Christopher Demers, “Large Air Transport Jet Engine Design Considerations for Large and for Flocking Bird Encounters”, DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska-Lincoln (2009). http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1005&context=birdstrike2009.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

Aircraft Wheel Well Stowaways and Potential Mass Torts

In recent years, wheel well stowaways have received increasing media attention and public interest.  Statistics on the manner of death and the factors that keep stowaways alive are not precise, and there are differing standards for investigation internationally.

Many, if not most, of these incidents arise from the unfortunate political, social, economic or family circumstance of the stowaway.  However, assuming the physiological obstacles of hypothermia and hypoxia are overcome, one major question remains: What legal implications are raised if a stowaway with destructive intent caused a major tragedy?

Usually a stowaway jumps into an aircraft by hanging on to the airliner’s landing gear as the plane takes off, or climbs into the gear compartment before takeoff.  The force of the wind can easily make a stowaway fall to his or her death.  Alternatively, many stowaways are crushed in the confined space of the compartment when the gear is retracted.  Others appear to have died from the heat produced by the engines of the aircraft, or fallen while unconscious when the gear is extended.  The overwhelming majority of stowaways are young males.

According to the FAA, the first recorded case of an aircraft stowaway occurred on June 13, 1929. The Bernard monoplane Oiseau Canari, piloted by Frenchmen Assollant Lefevre, had trouble taking off in spite of its powerful Hispano Suiza engine. The crew later discovered the cause of the problem: a stowaway on board. Despite the overload, the plane landed in Spain after 22 hours of flight. http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ang/offices/tc/about/campus/faa_host/rdm/media/pdf/fy2011rdannualreview.pdf.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

Physiological threats for a stowaway are minimal at altitudes up to 8,000 feet, but at higher altitudes reduced atmospheric pressure and partial pressure of oxygen may have deleterious effects.  At all cruising altitudes, the partial pressure of oxygen in a wheel well cannot sustain consciousness.  Additionally, at altitudes of about 20,000 feet, stowaways may develop decompression sickness.  Id.

All of the scientific research suggests that, after takeoff, a stowaway faces two life-threatening conditions during flight: hypoxia and hypothermia.  In 1993, the fatality of a 19-year old who stowed away in the wheel-well of a plane bound from Colombia to JFK was one of the 13 wheel-well stowaway flights documented in a report by the U.S. FAA, Civil Aeromedical Institute (CAMI), and Flight Safety Foundation as having frozen to death. (FSF). https://www.faa.gov/data_research/research/med_humanfacs/oamtechreports/1990s/media/AM96-25.pdfhttp://flightsafety.org/hf/hf_may-jun97.pdf .  (Last visited 4/19/16).

Some experts suggest that survival rates in young people may be higher because their brains more readily approach to a “virtual hibernative state,” where their bodies become temporarily more adaptable to trauma.  http://time.com/70441/how-the-teen-stowaway-survived-his-trans-pacific-flight-in-a-wheel-well/.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

According to the FAA, from 1947-2014 there have been 94 flights involving 105 people who stowed away worldwide.  Of those 105 people, 80 died and twenty-five survived.  The twenty-five people who survived represent a 23.8 percent survival rate.

In 2014 a sixteen-year-old California boy jumped a fence at San Jose International Airport and squeezed into the wheel-well of a flight bound for Maui, where he emerged 5 hours later, in good health.  Experts surmised that the teen’s youth could be an advantage, as the brains of young people adapt more easily to hypothermia and hypoxia, for reasons that are not completely understood.  http://khon2.com/2014/04/20/fbi-investigating-stowaway-of-hawaiian-airlines-flight/.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

Similarly, in June, 2015, a 21-year old Indonesian man hid in the wheel well of a Garuda Indonesia flight from Sumatra to Jakarta. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/08/stowaway-survives-flight-indonesia_n_7023396.html(Last visited 4/19/16).

Possible Liability

There may be a number of consequences of security breaches by aircraft wheel well stowaways and their on-board actions, despite the present physiological obstacles.  Among these include:

  • In the event of a crash, mass tort litigation by innocent passengers against airlines, airports, governments and contractors arising from security breaches.
  • Widespread concern about security at public, airline, security provider, airport, and government levels which leads to additional legislation, regulation, or policy.
  • Other terrorist acts such as ransom demands or extortion of other conditions by extremists determined to cause a catastrophe through a stowaway with destructive or disruptive capability.
  • Government levied fines for airlines, airports, private security companies, local police, and federal agents based on security breaches.
  • Increased security measures imposed on airport, airline, local, state and federal authorities.
  • Lawsuits by agencies, airlines or security agents against the indigent stowaways are unlikely, although deportation is possible.

Wheel well stowaway events appear to be on the rise, and each event is highly publicized.  However, these events have not resulted in widespread litigation.  The only litigated case brought by the family of a stowaway involved sixteen-year-old Delvonte Tisdale.  Tisdale ran away from home on November 14th, 2010.  A day later his body was found mangled in a Boston suburb.  Authorities determined that Tisdale likely sneaked onto the tarmac of Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and climbed into the wheel well of US Airways Flight 1176, bound for Boston.

Tisdale’s family sued US Airways, The airport, and the City of Charlotte alleging that the defendants negligently failed to ensure people could not access restricted areas.  Among the failure to warn claims was an allegation that the defendants failed to warn of the dangers of entering an aircraft as a passenger through the wheel well.

http://www.greensboro.com/news/local_news/family-of-teen-stowaway-who-fell-from-plane-s-wheel/article_3e969954-8528-5211-99c8-88cc77529794.html.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

The judge ultimately disagreed with Tisdale’s family and dismissed the case.  Siding with Charlotte City Attorney Robert Hagemann, the judge ruled in July, 2013 that Tisdale was negligent in his actions and that the city is not responsible for people who breach security.  http://boston.cbslocal.com/2013/03/07/judge-dismisses-suit-filed-by-family-of-airplane-stowaway-delvonte-tisdale/.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

The breach of security in the Tisdale case raised questions about airport security.  If a 16-year-old, who had never flown before could evade airport security measures, then why not a terrorist?  With the proliferation of wheel well stowaways, it is likely only a matter of time until a tragic mass tort occurs.

Aircraft Laser Strikes

Reports of aircraft targeting with handheld ground lasers have been rising sharply.  In 2006, there were 384 reported incidents.  By 2014, there were 3,894 reported incidents.  In 2015, there were 7,702 reported incidents.  The FAA has recorded approximately 22 aircraft laser strikes per day in 2016.  https://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=15774  (Last visited 4/19/16).  https://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/lasers/laws/.  (Last visited 4/19/16).  https://www.justice.gov/usao-edca/pr/bakersfield-man-sentenced-striking-sheriff-s-helicopter-laser   (Last visited 4/19/16).  https://www.justice.gov/usao-edca/pr/bakersfield-resident-sentenced-pointing-laser-kern-county-sheriff-helicopter.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

In a widely publicized recent incident, a Virgin Atlantic flight originating at Heathrow bound for New York with 252 passengers on board was forced to turn back after a flight crew “medical issue” was caused by a laser strike shortly after takeoff.  http://.bbc.com/news/uk-35575861.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

Exposure to laser illumination may cause hazardous effects such as pain, watery eyes, headaches, flash-blindness, distraction or disorientation, loss of depth perception, and aborted takeoffs or landings, in addition to danger during lower level flight.

In the United States, an area with high numbers of laser strikes is the 34 counties encompassed within the United States Judicial District for the Eastern District of California, a judicial district which has been vigorously prosecuting laser strike offenders and securing a large number of convictions resulting in prison sentences and fines. (Albuquerque, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Antonio, and San Juan all have high incidence of laser strikes.)  As recently as March 7, 2016, that office secured a guilty plea from a thirty-five year-old man with a powerful green laser, about the size of a flashlight in his pocket.  The man pleaded guilty to multiple strikes on a California State Highway Patrol airplane.  https://www.justice.gov/usao-edca/pr/clovis-man-pleads-guilty-laser-strikes-chp-plane (Last visited 4/19/16).

The increase in reports of ground based lasers targeting flying aircraft may be due to a number of factors, including the increased availability of inexpensive laser devices on the internet, higher power lasers which can strike aircraft at higher altitudes, and increased reporting by flight crews.  Regulatory power for laser light products is delegated to the FDA, and its regulations are found at 21 C.F.R. § 1010.

While some jurisdictions have made interdiction efforts using helicopters and other improved tracking methods, catching laser offenders is difficult.  The devices are small, and when extinguished can be easily concealed and the location of the user can be in sparsely populated areas.  To respond to the increasing attacks, the FAA launched the Laser Safety Initiative, which provides education on laser hazards and events, news, law and civil penalties, and encourages reporting.

The latest reports indicate that aircraft illuminations by handheld lasers involve green lasers rather than red.  This is significant because green lasers are 35 times brighter than red, and the wavelength of green lasers is close to the eye’s peak sensitivity when they are dark-adapted.  FAA flight simulation studies have shown that the adverse visual effects from laser exposure are especially debilitating when the eyes are adapted to the low-light level of a cockpit at night. http://www.faa.gov/pilots/safety/pilotsafetybrochures/media/laser_hazards_web.pdf.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

Restricted airspace surrounding commercial airports, in particular, can provide federal, state and/or local criminal penalties for violation with a laser, even if the operator is not operating the laser within the space, but merely causes the beam to intersect the controlled airspace to target an aircraft.  In the United States, laser airspace guidelines can be found in FAA Order JO 7400.2 (Revision “G” as of April 2008).  Chapter 29 of the Order provides a comprehensive overview of the FAA’s laser guidelines.

In 2011, the FAA announced plans to impose civil penalties against people, including the parents of juveniles, who point a laser into the cockpit of an aircraft.  http://www.faa.gov/news/press_releases/news_story.cfm?newsId=12765.  (Last visited 4/19/16).  The maximum administrative penalty is a fine of $11,000.

The FAA released a legal interpretation which concluded that directing a laser bean into an aircraft cockpit could interfere with a flight crew performing its duties while operating an aircraft, a violation of FAA regulations.  http://www.faa.gov/news/media/Laser%20Memorandum%20Final%20060111.pdf.  (Last visited 4/19/16).  The FAA conducted an analysis of 14 C.F.R. § 91.11 which provides that, “[n]o person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.”  However, the FAA standard for liability is higher than the standard for criminal liability under 18 U.S.C. §§ 32 and 39A.

Federal regulations prohibiting interference with a crewmember in the performance of their duties had initially been adopted in response to hijackings.  However, the FAA legal interpretation concluded that nothing in the regulation specified that the person interfering must be on the airplane.  Previously, the FAA had taken enforcement action only against passengers on-board the aircraft that interfere with crewmembers.  The maximum civil penalty is $11,000.  By June, 2012, the FAA had initiated 28 enforcement actions.  http://www.faa.gov/news/press_releases/news_story.cfm?newsId=13555.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

On February 14, 2012, President Obama signed Public Law 112-95.  The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Section 311 amended Title 18 of the United States Code (U.S.C) Chapter 2 § 39, by adding § 39A, which makes it a federal crime to aim a laser pointer at an aircraft.  http://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/lasers/laws/.  (Last visited 4/19/16).  Prior to 2012, federal prosecutions of laser illuminations of aircraft were initiated pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 32(a)(5), which prohibits interference with the safe operation of an aircraft.  Aiming a laser at an aircraft is also prohibited by many state laws.

Between 2005 and 2013, there were 17,725 reported laser strikes in the United States, resulting in 134 arrests.  This data suggests that even when limiting the calculation to reported incidents, there is only a 0.75 percent chance of getting caught; a percentage that would decrease if unreported incidents were also considered.  There were 80 convictions among the 134 arrests. One reason for the conviction rate of 60 percent is that some who were arrested were minors who were never formally charged.  http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2014/05/blinding-light-the-us-crackdown-on-not-so-harmless-laser-strikes/3/.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

One high-profile case involved Sergio Rodriguez, who received a 14-year prison sentence after he was convicted of lasing police and medical helicopters in August, 2012.  Karen Escobar, the Assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of California who prosecuted the Escobar case, has pursued more cases against laser perpetrators than any other federal prosecutor.  Escobar was quoted as saying:

“At sentencing, [Rodriguez] did not accept responsibility for his actions; he blamed his 2- and 3- year-old children. I believe the evidence showed the laser was a dangerous weapon, and there was intention, supporting a guideline sentence of 168 months. I would not call it harsh. I would say it is a penalty that fits the crime, but I believe that it will have a deterrent effect, and I hope it will.”  Id.

The Ninth Circuit has since reversed Rodriguez’ conviction for violation of 18 U.S.C. § 32 and remanded for resentencing for the Section 39A violation.  The Ninth Circuit found that the evidence did not support proof of the willfulness requirement for a Section 32 violation, noting that Section 32 was intended to apply to the bin Ladens of the world, not knuckleheads like Rodriguez.  On remand, the district court imposed the maximum penalty of five years for the Section 32 violation.

Much of the current focus on laser strikes focuses on interdiction and criminal prosecution.  The potential for a laser beam disabling a flight crew, and resulting in a mass tort, creates civil liability questions which have yet to be resolved.

Animal Passengers: Is it a Pet, a Service Animal, an Emotional Support Animal, Or Something Else, and Does It Get a Ride?

Walking through any large airport in 2016, it is likely that departing and arriving passengers will see any number of animals and a wide variety of species, shapes, and sizes.  Dogs, cats, birds, rodents, reptiles, pigs and even miniature horses are all found in airports waiting to board.  The distinction between service animals, companion animals, emotional support animals, and pets may not always be clear.

Transport of service animals, including emotional support animals is governed by the Air Carrier Access Act (“ACAA”), 49 U.S.C. § 41705 (1986), which incorporates provisions consistent with the Americans With Disabilities Act, 42 USC § 126 (1990).  In contrast to service animals, transport of pets is generally done for an additional fee, which can be significant.  Transportation of pets is generally governed by airline and airport policy, so long as policy is consistent with FAA, TSA, USDA and DOT rules and regulations.  This can lead to arguably conflicting policies and practices by airports and carriers.

Animals and the Air Carrier Access Act

The ACAA prohibits discrimination by U.S. and foreign air carriers on the basis of physical or mental disability.  In 1990, the U.S. Department of Transportation promulgated the official regulations implementing the ACAA.  Those rules mandate nondiscrimination on the basis of disability in air travel.  14 CFR Part 382.

The implementation regulations in Part 832, and guidance publications prepared by DOT provide guidance for airline employees and people with disabilities in understanding and applying the ACAA and the provisions of Part 382 with respect to service animals in determining:

(1) whether an animal is a service animal and its user a qualified individual with a disability;

(2) how to accommodate a qualified person with a disability with a service animal in the aircraft cabin; and

(3) when a service animal legally can be refused carriage in the cabin.

The 1996 DOT ACAA guidance manual defines a service animal as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If the animal meets this definition, it is considered a service animal regardless of whether it has been licensed or certified by a state or local government.” “Guidance Concerning Service Animals in Air Transportation,” (61 FR 56420-56422, (November 1, 1996)).

In 2003, DOT clarified the previous definition of service animal by making it clear that animals that assist persons with disabilities by providing emotional or psychiatric support qualify as service animals.  The definition of service animal was modified to clarify that airlines had authority to require that passengers provide documentation of the individual’s disability and the medical necessity of the passenger’s travel with the animal in cases involving emotional support animals and psychiatric service animals

The DOT has continued to update the guidance materials.  Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel, 73 FR 27614, May 13, 2008 as modified by: Correction Notice of 74 FR 11469, March 18, 2009, Correction Notice of 75 FR 44885, July 30, 20010.  http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/rules/Part%20382-2008.pdf.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

Also of note in the DOT guidance materials:

  • Pets are not service animals.
  • Some unusual service animals, including snakes, other reptiles, ferrets, rodents and spiders pose unavoidable safety and/or public health concerns and airlines are not required to transport them in the cabin.
  • Other unusual service animals such as miniature horses, pigs and donkeys should be evaluated on a case by case basis.
  • When Part 382 was first promulgated, most service animals were guide or hearing dogs. Since then, a wider variety of animal (g., cats, monkeys, etc.) have been individually trained to assist people with disabilities. Service animals also perform a wider variety of functions than ever before (e.g., alerting a person with epilepsy of imminent seizure onset, pulling a wheelchair, assisting persons with mobility impairments with balance) which can make it difficult for airline employees to distinguish service animals from pets, especially when a passenger does not appear to be disabled, or the animal has no obvious indicators that it is a service animal.
  • People with disabilities use many different terms to identify animals that can meet the legal definition of “service animal.” These range from umbrella terms such as “assistance animal” to specific labels such as “hearing,” “signal,” “seizure alert,” “psychiatric service,” “emotional support” animal, etc. that describe how the animal assists a person with a disability.
  • In a nutshell, the main requirements of Part 382 regarding service animals are:
    • Carriers shall permit dogs and other service animals used by persons with disabilities to accompany the persons on a flight. § 382.117(a).
    • Carriers shall accept as evidence that an animal is a service animal identifiers such as identification cards, other written documentation, presence of harnesses, tags or the credible verbal assurances of a qualified individual with a disability using the animal.
    • Carriers shall permit a service animal to accompany a qualified individual with a disability in any seat in which the person sits, unless the animal obstructs an aisle or other area that must remain unobstructed in order to facilitate an emergency evacuation or to comply with FAA regulations.
  • If a service animal cannot be accommodated at the seat location of the qualified individual with a disability whom the animal is accompanying, the carrier shall offer the passenger the opportunity to move with the animal to a seat location in the same class of service, if present on the aircraft, where the animal can be accommodated, as an alternative to requiring that the animal travel in the cargo hold § 382.117(c).
  • Carriers shall not impose charges for providing facilities, equipment, or services that are required by this Part to be provided to qualified individuals with a disability § 382.31.

In one recent case, a Washington State trial court analyzed the requirements of the ACAA as applied to an injury to a passenger caused by a Rottweiler service dog.  Sullivan v. Alaska Air Group, Inc., et al., Spokane County Case No. 15-02-00227-3, February 29, 2016.  Defendant owner of the Rottweiler was initially seated in back of the plane, but moved to row one to accommodate the size of the dog.  Plaintiff was seated in row two.  On arrival in Spokane, the dog allegedly bit plaintiff’s hand as she disembarked.

Plaintiff contended the airline had a duty to protect her and that the animal posed a foreseeable risk.  The airline argued that the ACAA preempted, either through conflict or field preemption, the plaintiff’s claims.  In conducting a preemption analysis, the court noted that airline passenger safety in regards to service animal is pervasively regulated by the ACAA sufficient to find that federal law expressly preempts and state standards of care.

The court granted the airline’s motion for summary judgement based on ACAA preemption.  The court noted that the requirements of 14 C.F.R. § 382.117 did not preclude the Rottweiler from riding on the plane.  The airline established, in satisfaction of the statutory requirements that the animal was, in fact, a service animal and they also determined that the animal did not present either a direct threat to the health and safety of others or a significant threat to the disruption of airline service.  Evidence was presented that the dog flew on the carrier or its partners twelve times previously without incident. Finally, there were harness markings or other credible assurances provided to establish that the dog was a service animal.

Animals present airlines and airports with a minefield of compliance, liability, public relations and customer service issues which range from fundamental flight safety, to combating abuses of the ACAA in order to obtain free plane tickets for pets.  In many cases, it may come down to a judgment call about whether the animal can safely be accommodated, or whether it will disrupt, or even endanger the flight.  Airlines also face very high fines for failing to accommodate legitimate service animal accommodation requests.

In January, 2016, a passenger brought a live turkey onto a Delta Airlines flight, claiming the animal was needed for emotional support.  Delta noted that the passenger had complied with the rigorous requirements of the ACAA which included providing documentation from a mental health professional that the animal’s companionship was necessary for travel.

Delta’s spokesperson noted that any therapist can sign off on any kind of animal, however, snakes, spiders and farm poultry are not acceptable.  Animals allowed to board as service or emotional support animals under the ACAA are accommodated free of charge, and are not allowed to block emergency exits or occupy seats designed for passengers. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/01/15/someone-just-used-a-federal-law-to-bring-a-live-turkey-on-a-delta-flight/.  (Last visited 4/19/16).  http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/turkeys-sitting-planes-emotional-support-animals-article-1.2496248.  (Last visited 4/19/16).

Scott Brooksby featured as speaker and moderator regarding birds, pets, lasers, and other hot topics in aviation

On June 1, 2016, Scott Brooksby was featured as a speaker and moderator on a panel entitled “Birds, Pets, Lasers, Stowaways, and Other Hot Topics in Aviation”, at the American Bar Association’s 22nd Annual National Institute on Aviation Litigation, at the University Club of New York in New York, New York.

Scott and the other distinguished panelists provided an overview of emerging security issues for airlines, airports, manufacturers, and governments with respect to bird and animal strikes, laser strikes, and wheel well stowaways. Each pose the danger of catastrophic mass torts.  The topics discussed included the following issues:

• Bird strikes are the second-leading cause of death in aviation, with more than 400 deaths globally. Learn about required airport wildlife management plans and mitigation techniques, and how airports and the government can address liability risks.
• Flight crews are increasingly targets of inexpensive, and increasingly powerful hand-held green lasers. More than 7,000 laser strikes were reported to the FAA in 2015. This panel will discuss efforts by prosecutors pursuing criminal charges, and liability issues arising from laser strikes.
• Pigs, snakes and turkeys are just some of the pets, or emotional support animals, that airlines are confronting. The safety of other passengers, who may be the victims of physical injury of property damage, present liability issues for airports and airlines.
• The number of wheel well stowaway incidents are rising which poses security risks for airports and airlines, and it is not inconceivable that the stowaway with destructive intent could cause a catastrophic mass tort.

Scott Brooksby featured as speaker on the Germanwings crash.

Scott Brooksby spoke on a panel in New York, NY at the  American Conference Institute’s 8th Annual Forum on Defending and Managing Aviation Claims and Litigation.  His panel was entitled “SPOTLIGHT ON FLIGHT CREW MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES Post-Germanwings: An In Depth Discussion of the Legal, Regulatory, Public Safety and Ethical Considerations”.   On June 27, 2016, Scott and other distinguished panelists spoke on the following topics:
• An in depth discussion of aeromedical
issues and developments following last year’s
Germanwings crash
• What procedures are currently in place
to identify mental health issues in pilots,
crew-members, air traffic controllers? —
Are they enough?
• Who should be in possession of a
crew-member’s mental health information?
• Who has what responsibilities to make reports
of other crew-members’ mental health info?
• Who regulates this?
• Assessing considerations of confidentiality
with considerations of public safety
• Under what circumstances can medical data
be shared and with whom?
• What strides is the FAA taking in response to
the Germanwings tragedy? (ARC and Amsis)
• Addressing current issues and challenges related to:
– Awareness and reporting of emotional
and mental health issues
– Methods used to evaluate pilot emotional
and mental health
– Barriers to reporting such issues
– Surveillance and oversight of designees and
aviation industry substance-abuse programs
• A discussion of the ethical challenges and
considerations, and how to best navigate them

Scott Brooksby featured as a speaker regarding Air France 447

Scott Brooksby was a featured speaker on a panel discussing District Litigation after Air France 447.   Scott was invited to speak at the 3rd Annual Western Regional CLE Program on Class Actions and Mass Torts for the Bar Association of San Francisco.  The conference took place in San Francisco, California on May 27, 2016.

Scott and other distinguished panelists discussed the interesting substantive, procedural, and strategic considerations for airlines and other types of manufacturers seeking dismissal in forum non conveniens motions, and for passengers and other plaintiffs seeking to defeat FNC motions in multi-district litigation. Using examples from aviation-related MDLs, and specifically after the groundbreaking MDL involving Air France 447, the panel discussed key aspects of establishing personal jurisdiction over foreign corporate defendants. The panel discussed the complex issues associated with international treaties, choice-of-law, the meaning of an “unavailable forum” and challenging jurisdiction and venue considerations that arise when both U.S. and foreign individuals
are involved.

Moderator: Ann C. Taylor, Locke Lord LLP, Chicago, IL
Panelists: Scott Brooksby, Olson Brooksby, Portland, OR              Thad Dameris, Arnold & Porter, Houston, TX
Steve Koh, Perkins Coie LLP, Seattle, WA
Steve Marks, Podhurst Orseck, P.A., Miami, FL

Bird Strikes and Aviation: Facts and Fault

From Scott Brooksby’s article, “Bird Strikes and Aviation: Facts and Fault” published in the American Bar Association’s Mass Torts Practice Points on December 7, 2015:

Bird strikes are an increasing danger to commercial aviation and result in death and serious injury to passengers and crew, and soaring costs for aircraft damage.

According to Boeing, the first bird strike was recorded by the Wright Brothers in 1905. Now, aircraft-wildlife strikes are the second leading cause of aviation-related fatalities. Globally these strikes have killed over 400 people and destroyed more than 420 aircraft. In addition to birds, wildlife strikes have been reported involving horses, antelope, moose and many other mammals.

Potential Liability for Airport Operators
The USDA’s Airport Wildlife Hazards Program plays a leading role in the supervision and management of aircraft-wildlife strikes. The USDA notes that airport managers must exercise due diligence in managing wildlife hazards to avoid serious liability issues. The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations requires that Part 139-certificated airports experiencing hazardous wildlife conditions as defined in 14 C.F.R. section 139.337 to conduct formal wildlife hazard assessments. The certificated airports must develop wildlife hazard management plans as part of the certification standards. Airports are required to employ professional biologists trained in wildlife-hazard management. (14 C.F.R. § 139.337 and FAA Advisory Circular 150/5200-36). Failure to comply with the regulations can give rise to liability for airport operators.

Data Sampling
According to Boeing, the relevant wildlife-strike facts include:

1. More than 219 people have been killed as a result of bird strikes since 1988.

2. Between 1990 and 2009, bird and small and large mammal strikes have cost U.S. civil aviation $650 million per year.

3. The Air Force sustains about $333 million dollars in damage per year due to bird strikes.

4. About 5,000 bird strikes were reported by the Air Force in 2012.

5. About 9,000 bird and other wildlife strikes were reported for U.S civil aircraft in 2009.

6. The FAA has identified 482 species of birds involved in strikes from 1990-2012.

Factors Contributing to the Rise in Bird Strikes

1. The North American non-migratory Canada goose population increased from 1 million birds in 1990 to 4 million birds in 2009. Concentrations are particularly high at JFK airport and surrounding regions, with the ample grass and wetlands, but populations of various sizes are found near airports across the country.

2. A 12-pound Canada goose struck by an airplane moving at 150 miles per hour during takeoff generates the kinetic energy of a 1000 pound weight dropped from a height of ten feet.

3. Nesting populations of bald eagles increased from 400 pairs in 1970 to 13,000 pairs in 2010. Between 1990 and 2009, 125 bald eagle strikes were reported. The body mass of a bald eagle is 9.1 pounds for males and 11.8 pounds for females.

4. Finally, the population of European starlings is now the second most prevalent bird in America, numbering over 150 million. Often called “silver bullets,” they fly at high speed and have a body density that is 27 percent greater than gulls.

Prevention
In January 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 landed on the Hudson River after multiple Canada goose strikes in flight.  As a result, New York City Mayor Michael Bloombergdeclared war on geese. Suzanne Goldenberg, New York Declares War on Geese to Prevent Airport Bird Strikes, The Guardian (June 12, 2009). A mayoral steering committee gave the go-ahead to the USDA to cull geese in a 450-mile area encompassing JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports. Other means of control include:

1. Each summer, teams of USDA goose catchers capture geese that, in the molting condition cannot fly, including offspring that are then taken to slaughterhouses and dispatched. Between 2009 and 2010, 2911 geese were killed.

2. The USDA reports that 80 percent of Canada geese are resident, and remain in place, rather than migrate. The government and airport operators strongly advocate for the culling of non-migratory birds.

3. Discouraging nesting and grazing.

4. Letting grass grow taller, planting unpalatable grasses, reducing standing rainwater, and oiling eggs to prevent hatching.

5. Firing pyrotechnics and propane cannons.

Conclusion
Given the rapid growth of non-migratory birds at some of the busiest airports, and the dramatic increase in flights, it may only be a matter of time before a catastrophic bird or wildlife strike will happen again, with more disastrous results than the extraordinary landing of Flight 1549 on the Hudson.

Scott Brooksby featured as moderator regarding helicopter accidents

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Scott Brooksby recently moderated a panel at a prominent aviation conference concerning helicopter accidents.  Scott’s panel was featured at the American Bar Association’s Aviation Litigation National Institute in New York regarding “Helicopter Accidents: A Review of Recent Cases of Interest”.

At this prominent aviation conference, Scott was part of a distinguished faculty, which highlighted current developments in aviation law and insurance topics including:

• Safety in the cockpit issues and precedents that developed from the 9/11 litigation and how they relate to the Germanwings tragedy

• The unique challenges involved in emergency medical helicopter services both from a legal and safety perspective

• Choice of forum and other legal issues and precedents arising from several high profile international disasters

• London market claims leaders’ perspectives on handling aviation disasters spanning the globe

• Flying special missions for government and industry from explosives to ebola

• New developments in the law of aircraft financier liability in connection with the tortious actions of lessees and operators

• Common themes and issues faced by the trial teams in domestic cases such as the Colgan Air 3407 and Comair 5191

• Ethical considerations when selecting and preparing experts in aviation accident litigation

• The future of aviation, aerospace law, and litigation in connection with drones and commercial space/sub-orbital travel

 Scott Brooksby is an aviation lawyer in Portland, Oregon, with experience in a broad variety of aviation topics, including helicopter litigation and crashes.

Lease agreements and consent provisions

Lease agreements are common.  But what if your lease agreement says that you can’t do something without the consent of the lessor?  Olson Brooksby deals frequently with airplane lease agreements.  For example, the owner of an airplane might have certain repair facilities that it likes and the lease might contain a consent provision that requires the owner to consent to the repair facility if the plane needs repairs.  This can be very frustrating for the lessee, who has to pay for the repairs.  The lessee might be concerned that the lessor wants an expensive repair facility or a facility that requires transportation of the plane to a faraway place.  How do conflicts over these provisions get resolved?

The following is from Kristin Olson and Scott Brooksby’s article published in the International Association of Defense Counsel’s Business Litigation, “Consent Provisions in Lease Agreements: Must the Lessor Act Reasonably?”

CONSENT PROVISIONS IN LEASE AGREEMENTS: MUST THE LESSOR ACT REASONABLY? 

Experienced business litigators are generally familiar with a broad range of real estate, equipment, and other forms of lease agreements, as well as litigation stemming from such agreements.  But what happens when a lease contract has a provision that requires the consent of the lessor before the lessee takes a certain action?  Does the lessee have recourse against the lessor if the lessee’s consent is, for example, withheld arbitrarily?

Equipment or airplane leases provide a useful case study.  Provisions in airplane lease agreements, for example, may require consent of the lessor.  By way of illustration, an airplane owner (the lessor) leases an airplane to an airline (the lessee) and the lease agreement includes provisions that require that the owner consent to the choice of airplane repair facility if the airplane needs repairs.  In cases where there are those types of contractual provisions, the owner might argue that the lease effectively allows it to unilaterally choose the repair facility for the airplane.  Under that hypothetical lease provision, even if the airline is allowed to initially choose the facility, the owner must consent to the airline’s choice.  This may have serious economic consequences for the airline, which may be concerned that the repair facility chosen by the owner is a slower repair facility than the one that the airline would have chosen, forcing the airline to incur loss of use damages.  The airline may also be concerned that the repairs conducted at the facility approved by the owner will be more costly—this is particularly a concern if, under the lease, the airline is required to pay for the repairs or if the airline’s pilots or mechanics damaged the plane.  The airline may also be concerned that the repair facility chosen by, or approved by, the owner is far away (a common issue with airline repair facilities)—particularly if the lease requires that the airline pay for all transport costs to the repair facility.

So what happens?  Is the airline subject to the owner’s choices?  In the hypothetical above, does the owner get to dictate where the airplane is repaired?  The answers to those questions vary depending on jurisdiction and whether the lease explicitly requires that the lessor act reasonably, as explained in further detail below.

Does the lease explicitly require that the lessor act reasonably?

A lease may explicitly provide that the lessor’s consent “may not be unreasonably withheld.”  If the lease contains this explicit provision, that is obviously helpful to the lessee.  However, it still does not resolve the issue in some jurisdictions.  Some jurisdictions require an examination of the facts and circumstances in order to determine whether the withholding of consent was “unreasonable” under the explicit terms of the lease.

For example, in Georgia, even if there is an explicit provision requiring that a lessor’s failure to consent be reasonable, there are common law tests of “fairness and commercial reasonableness” that must be applied to the lessor’s conduct.  WPD Center, LLC v. Watershed, Inc., 765 S.E.2d 531, 534 (Ga. App. 2014).  In that case, the court found that there was “a jury issue” as to whether consent was unreasonably withheld concerning a proposed sublease.  Id. at 534-35.

In some jurisdictions, courts will not require a lessor to act reasonably unless the lease explicitly requires it.                                                                                 

In New York, if there is no explicit requirement of reasonableness in the lease, the court will not impose such a requirement on the lessor.

In General Electric Capital Corp. v. Gary, 2013 WL 390959, *1 (S.D.N.Y. 2013), the court examined a loan agreement for the purchase of an aircraft.  The loan documents “specified that any assignment, lease or other transfer of any interest in or possession of the Aircraft or any of its parts required prior written approval by the lender.  Notably, the agreement did not require the lender to have a reasonable basis for withholding such consent”.   Id. at *4.  The court explained that, under New York law, when “’a contract negotiated at arm’s length lacks specific language preventing plaintiff from unreasonably withholding consent, the Court can not and should not rewrite the contract to include such language which neither of the parties saw fit to insert in the contract.’”  Id. (quoting Teachers Ins. & Annuity Assn. of Am. v. Wometco Enters., Inc., 833 F.Supp. 344, 349 (S.D.N.Y. 1994)).

In the Second Circuit case of State Street Bank & Trust Co. v. Inversiones Errazuiriz Limitada, 374 F.3d 158, 170 (2d Cir. 2004), cert. denied, 543 U.S. 1177 (2005), the court applied New York law and held that a credit agreement allowed a bank to unreasonably withhold consent on a sale of assets if the other party defaulted on its loans because it was an arms length contract that did not put explicit restrictions on the consent provisions.

Although the court in State Street acknowledged that New York law recognizes the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, it explained that the covenant must be consistent with the explicit terms of the contract before it is applied.  Id. at 169-70.  The court held that, under the terms of the agreement at issue in State Street, the bank had the right to “’withhold consent for any reason or no reason . . . .’”  Id. at 170 (quoting Teachers Ins. & Annuity Assn. of Am, 833 F.Supp. at 349).  The agreement did not explicitly restrict the bank’s right to refuse to consent to a sale of assets if the other party defaulted on its loans.  Id.  The court went on to note that, even if the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing were hypothetically applied to these circumstances, “the bank’s refusal to consent to such a sale was neither unreasonable nor arbitrary” and was “made for a legitimate business purpose.”  Id.

Under South Dakota law, the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing is generally applied to every contract. However, as long as the parties act honestly, South Dakota courts will probably broadly enforce most contractual terms that explicitly require consent.

In Taylor Equip., Inc. v. John Deere Co., 98 F.3d 1028, 1029 (8th Cir. 1996), Midcon was John Deere’s former industrial equipment dealer.  Midcon argued that John Deere breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing by refusing to approve Midcon’s request to assign its dealership to a willing buyer.  Id.  at 1029-30.  As a result, Midcon had to sell its dealership to the approved buyers for a significantly lower amount of money.  Id. at 1030.  The contract between Midcon and John Deere provided that Midcon could not assign its dealership to any buyer “without the prior written consent of [Deere].”  Id. (internal quotation marks omitted.)  The court held that the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing “cannot override this express term of the contract”.  Id.

Although “South Dakota law implies a covenant of good faith and fair dealing into every contract”, id. at 1031, the court explained that the definition of “good faith” is “’honesty in fact in the conduct or the transaction concerned.’”  Id. at 1032.  Additionally, under South Dakota law, the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing “does not affect every contract term” and “cannot ‘block use of terms that actually appear in the contract.’”  Id.

The court explained that, as long as John Deere acted honestly, it had “an unrestricted right to withhold approval” under the contract.  Id. at 1034.  The court noted that, “’[I]n commercial transactions it does not in the end promote justice to seek strained interpretations in aid of those who do not protect themselves.’”  Id.

Michigan law recognizes the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. However, Michigan courts will generally refuse to apply the covenant of good faith or reasonableness to a contract that explicitly requires prior consent.

In James v. Whirlpool Corp., 806 F. Supp. 835, 838, 840 (E.D. Mo. 1992), the court applied Michigan law to a distributorship contract between St. Louis Appliance Parts, Inc. (SLAP), an appliance part distributor, and Whirlpool, the appliance manufacturer.  SLAP argued that Whirlpool breached its covenant of good faith and fair dealing because it refused to approve the sale and proposed assignment of SLAP to Aberdeen, another distributor.  Id. at 843.  The court explained that, “Michigan common law recognizes an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing that applies to the performance and enforcement of all contracts.”  Id.  However, the court also noted that, under Michigan law, the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing will only limit the parties’ conduct if the covenant does not contradict an explicit provision in the contract.  Id.  The court held that the contract explicitly restricted SLAP from assigning its rights under the contract without Whirlpool’s prior written consent.  Id. at 843-44.  The contract also provided that Whirlpool could terminate the contract “for a change in management or control which it found unacceptable.”  Id. at 844.  The court therefore refused to apply the covenant of good faith and fair dealing because it would “override the express terms” of the contract.  Id.

Under Minnesota law, prior consent requirements in contracts are generally upheld without restriction.

In In re Bellanca Aircraft Corp. v. Anderson-Greenwood Aviation Corp., 850 F.2d 1275 (1988), the court applied Minnesota law and held that Bellanca’s contracts with two companies to manufacture aircrafts were worthless assets because both contracts required the consent of the companies before Bellanca could assign the contracts to a different manufacturer.  Id. at 1285.  Under the contracts, “consent could be withheld for any reason whatsoever, arbitrarily or rationally.”  Id.  The court noted that the duty of good faith under the UCC did not prevent parties from negotiating provisions requiring consent that “may be reasonably or unreasonably withheld.”  Id.  Additionally, the court based its decision on the fact that that the parties did not cite to any common law supporting the idea that the UCC imposes “a duty not to withhold consent to assign unreasonably.”  Id. 

In Colorado, Alaska, Oregon, and Ohio, the courts generally apply the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, even if the contract does not explicitly state that the withholding of consent must be reasonable.

Colorado

In Larese v. Creamland Dairies, Inc., 767 F.2d 716, 717–18 (10th Cir. 1985), the court applied Colorado law and held that a franchisor may not unreasonably or arbitrarily withhold its consent to transfer rights to a franchise.  The court explained that, “the franchisor must bargain for a provision expressly granting the right to withhold consent unreasonably, to insure that the franchisee is put on notice.  Since, in this case, the contracts stated only that consent must be obtained, [the franchisor] did not have the right to withhold consent unreasonably.”  Id. at 718.

Alaska

In Alaska, “Where the lessor’s consent is required before an assignment can be made, he may withhold his consent only where he has reasonable grounds to do so.”  Hendrickson v. Freericks, 620 P.2d 205, 211 (Alaska 1980).

Oregon

In Oregon, the lessee has an objectively reasonable expectation that the lessor will consent, especially if the lessor has no objective reason to refuse its consent.  See Hampton Tree Farms, Inc. v. Jewett, 892 P.2d 683, 693 (Or. 1995) (“jury could find that [seller’s] unilateral action in discontinuing to supply logs frustrated [buyer’s] objectively reasonable expectation”).  Oregon courts recognize the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing as long as it does not contradict an express contractual term.  Stevens v. Foren, 959 P.2d 1008, 1012 (Or. App. 1998).  In other words, the court will require reasonable conduct as long as the contract does not contain an explicit provision that allows the lessor to unreasonably withhold its consent.   Oregon, what is “reasonable” generally depends on the facts and circumstances.  Reasonable expectations include the right of either party to further its own legitimate business interests.  U.S. Genes v. Vial, 923 P.2d 1322, 1325 (Or. App. 1996).

Ohio

In Littlejohn v. Parrish, 839 N.E.2d 49, 50 (Ohio App. 2005), the court found that there was an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in a mortgage note, which stated that prepayment was subject to the mortgagee’s approval, but did not explicitly include a requirement that the mortgagee act reasonably.  The court noted that, under Ohio law, “there is an implied duty of good faith in almost every contract.”  Id. at 53.

Best Practices

If you are assisting parties in negotiating a contract, it is best if you include explicit provisions concerning consent.  If you represent the airplane owner in the introductory hypothetical, you may want to include a provision that states that consent is required and may be unreasonably withheld.  If you represent the airline, you obviously want to omit any consent provisions.  However, if the airplane owner requires a consent provision to do business, the airline should try to negotiate for a provision that explicitly states that consent may not be unreasonably withheld.  The airline could also try to negotiate for a specific list of agreed-to repair facilities in advance.

 

 

Aviation Fatalities: Most are Caused by Human Error

Developing and Following Good Standard Operating Procedures (“SOPs”) and Crew Resource Management (“CRM”) Procedures Are the Keys to Avoiding Aviation Fatalities

The National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) recently released its statistical data calculating transportation fatalities across all modes of transportation in 2011.  There were 494 fatalities in aviation.  The breakdown was as follows: general aviation, 444; air taxi, 41; foreign/unregistered, 9; airlines, 0; commuter, 0.[1]

In comparing the 2011 data against the prior decade or so, there are certainly positive signs.  But, like all raw statistics, the numbers are most useful when integrated into a longitudinal data comparison from which conclusions are drawn.  The NTSB fatality statistics draw a conclusion that might not be obvious from the 2011 data alone: Human error absolutely dominates as the leading cause of aviation fatalities (and injuries).

There are two keys to avoiding aviation fatalities: developing and following good SOPs and CRM procedures.  This article will examine some of the persistent human causes of aviation accidents, many of which are merely outgrowths of the failure of aviation organizations to develop, adhere to, and not willfully disregard SOPs.  The second cause of aviation fatalities examined in this article is the failure of flight deck crews to follow CRM procedures.  Complications that lead to failure to follow CRM procedures include factors such as cockpit chaos; multi-lingual cockpits; failure to maintain cockpit discipline; surprise; and failure, during emergencies, to rely on the crew member with the most flight time, if appropriate given the constitution of the crew as a whole.

Accidents Can Be Avoided Through Proper Cockpit Procedures and Compliance With SOPs

On September 16, 2013, NTSB Member Robert Sumwalt (“Member Sumwalt”) gave a presentation to the Southern California Aviation Association[2] on the importance of SOPs.  Member Sumwalt, quoting from an NTSB accident report, noted that, “[w]ell-designed cockpit procedures are an effective countermeasure against operational errors, and disciplined compliance with SOPs, including strict cockpit discipline, provides the basis for effective crew coordination and performance.”[3]

Member Sumwalt then presented facts about what the accident data show regarding crew-caused accidents.  In an NTSB study of 37 crew-caused air carrier accidents between 1978 and 1990, procedural errors, such as not making required callouts or failing to use appropriate checklists, were found in 29 of the 37 (78%) reviewed accidents.  The accident data also show that, with respect to turbine-powered operations (2001-2010), the NTSB identified at least 86 accidents involving lack of adequate procedures, policies, or checklists, or lack of flight crew adherence to procedures, policies, or checklists.  These accidents resulted in 149 fatalities.[4]

Developing Effective SOPs

The development of SOPs in various industries has been accomplished through a variety of regulatory bodies, industry groups, and volunteerism.  One of the first groups to establish such guidelines was the International Conference on Harmonisation (ICH), which defines SOPs as “detailed written instructions to achieve uniformity of the performance of a specific function.”  The international quality standard (“ISO”) 9001 essentially requires the establishment of SOPs for any manufacturing process that could affect the quality of the product.  Although ICH’s implementation of the ISO 9001 SOPs was in the context of clinical drug trials, a substantially similar system has been expanded to other industries.[5]

In the context of aviation, the SOP provides a flight crew with a step-by-step guide to effectively and safely carry out operations.  A particular SOP must not only achieve the task at hand but also be understood by a crew of various backgrounds and experiences within the organization.  SOPs can also be developed over time to incorporate improvements based on experience, accidents, near misses, or innovations from other manufacturers or operators to suit the needs of a particular organization.  SOPs can also provide employees with a reference to common business practices, activities, or tasks.[6]  New employees use SOPs to answer questions without having to interrupt supervisors to ask how an operation is performed.[7]

Although reference is made to ISO 9001 in the context of clinical trials, the ISO 9000 family of standards is related to quality management systems and designed to help organizations follow consistent procedures to meet the needs of customers and other stakeholders.[8]  “AS 9000” is the Aerospace Basic Quality System Standard–an interpretation developed and adopted by virtually all the major aerospace manufacturers.  The current version is AS 9100C.  A new version of the standard will be published in September 2015 if the ISO members vote favorably in March 2015.[9]

The Failure of Flight Crews to Comply With SOPs and the Consequences

During his remarks on flight crew error, Member Sumwalt cited a Boeing study of accident prevention strategies where the data suggested that the single most important factor in prevention of hull loss accidents over a ten-year period was pilot flying (PF) adherence to SOPs.  Member Sumwalt noted that SOPs are typically not followed for three specific reasons.  He discussed each reason, and then used data from an NTSB investigation, or preliminary cause report, as support or illustration for each of the three reasons.

The reasons SOPs are typically not followed are:

(1) the organization lacks adequate SOPs;

(2) the organization doesn’t adhere to their SOPs; and

(3) flight crews intentionally disregard SOPs.

SOPs should be clear, comprehensive, and readily available in the manuals used by flight deck crew members.[10]  Member Sumwalt provided three real-life corollary examples:

  • The Organization Lacks Adequate SOPs – Crash of East Coast Jets, Hawker Beechcraft BAe 800, on July 31, 2008, Owatonna, Minnesota (8 fatalities)

The NTSB found that, although as a charter operator, East Coast Jets was not required to incorporate SOPs into its operations manual, if it had done so, it may have supported the accident pilots in establishing cockpit discipline and, therefore, a safer cockpit environment.  An example was provided where the SOP identifies the triggering event, designates which crewmember performs the action or callout, what the callout is, and what the action is.

  • The Organization Fails to Adhere to Its Established SOPs – Crash of Cessna 310, N501N, July 10, 2007, Sanford, Florida (5 fatalities)

In this case the organization did not adhere to SOPs.  The aviation director could not locate the SOP manual, which was viewed as merely a training tool.  The aircraft was to be used only for company business, but the accident flight was a personal flight.  The Pilot in Command (“PIC”) must possess an Airline Transport Pilot (“ATP”) Certificate/Rating, but the PIC did not possess the necessary ATP.  The last three maintenance discrepancies had not been addressed.  The NTSB noted that these lapses were contrary to industry guidelines directing that procedures should be written in accordance with the organization’s operating methods, and once the procedures are in place, the organization should make every effort to follow those procedures.  Having a strong commitment to standardization and discipline were among the key elements of safe operations observed in a Boeing study.  Cockpit procedural language is tightly controlled to maintain consistency and to avoid confusion from non-standard callouts.  Callouts and responses should be done verbatim.[11]

  • Flight Crews Intentionally Disregard Established SOPs – Hard Landing of US Airways Express, January 19, 2010, Charleston, West Virginia

The NTSB probable cause determination was “the flight crewmembers’ unprofessional behavior, including their non-adherence to sterile cockpit procedures by engaging in non-pertinent conversation, which distracted them from their primary flight-related duties and led to their failure to correctly set and verify the flaps.”  Intentional crew non-compliance was a factor in 40% of the worldwide accidents reviewed.[12]

NTSB Member Sumwalt concluded by noting that well-designed SOPs are essential for safety.  Making a strong commitment to procedural compliance should be a core value of the organization.  The SOPs must not merely exist, but they must be religiously followed as a way of doing business.

Well-Coordinated CRM is a Crucial Part of Accident Prevention

CRM[13] is a set of training procedures for use in environments where human error can have devastating effects.  Used primarily for improving air safety, CRM focuses on interpersonal communication, leadership, and decision making in the cockpit.

CRM grew out of an NTSB analysis of the crash of United Airlines flight 173 where the plane, a DC-8, ran out of fuel while troubleshooting a landing gear problem over Portland Oregon.[14]  The NTSB issued its landmark recommendation on June 7, 1979, to require CRM training for airline crews.  A few weeks later, NASA held a workshop on the topic, endorsing this innovative training.[15]  United Airlines was the first airline to provide CRM training for its cockpit crews in 1981.[16]

Since that time, CRM training concepts have been modified for application to a wide range of activities where people must make dangerous time-critical decisions.  These arenas include air traffic control, ship handling, firefighting, and medical operating rooms.[17]

The Difficulty of Precisely Executing CRM Procedures In a Multicultural Cockpit

Multiculturalism in the cockpit is a largely recent phenomenon.  Globalization and shrinking militaries around the world have led to a decrease in the availability of trained pilots, a lack of homogenous flight crews, and the emergence of multicultural cockpits.  In 2005, a Helios Airways Boeing 737-300, with its pilots incapacitated by hypoxia after they failed to recognize a cabin pressurization system malfunction, provides a good example of what can happen when communication and crew resource management break down in the multicultural cockpit.[18]  All 121 people on the airplane were killed when the 737 depressurized and ran out of fuel, the engines flamed out, and the airplane crashed, after what was to have been a flight from Larnaca, Cyprus, to Prague, Czech Republic, with a stop in Athens.

In its final report on the accident, the Hellenic Air Accident Investigation and Aviation Safety Board said the crew had failed to recognize that the cabin pressurization mode selector was in the wrong position.  The Helios crew exhibited poor CRM before takeoff and during climb, and the difference in their nationalities and primary languages–the captain was German, the first officer was Cyprian–contributed to poor communication during the event.  A blaring cabin altitude warning horn and the illumination of master caution lights degraded the crew’s cognitive abilities and processes.  Inter-cockpit communications were reduced, perhaps in part because English was a second or third language for the crew.[19]

The CRM Lessons Learned From Air France 447–“Crew Coordination Vanished”

On March 27, 1977, two Boeing 747s crashed on the single runway on the Spanish island of Tenerife, killing 583 people.  More than 35 years later, it is still measured by the number of casualties, and is by far the worst aviation disaster in history.  One aspect of the accident, unlike many tragic and significant disasters, is that the non-aviation community was fixated on the Tenerife crash, the individuals involved, and exactly what the sequence of events was.  Arguably the next time both the aviation community and the non-aviation community became as fixated on an aviation disaster was the 2009 crash of Air France 447.[20]

Within four and a half minutes in the early hours of June 1, 2009, an Airbus A330-200 operating as Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, departed from cruise flight at 35,000 feet and descended into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 216 passengers and 12 crewmembers.  Glimpses of what may have gone wrong emerged from the several interim reports issued by the French Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyses (BEA) during the long investigation.  In July, 2012, the BEA issues a nearly 300-page final report.

According to the report, the trouble began when the A330’s pitot tubes were obstructed by ice crystals, causing the various air data sources to produce unreliable airspeed information.  Reacting as designed, the autopilot and autothrottle disengaged, and reverted to a lower control law that provides fewer protections against flight-envelope deviations.  Startled, the pilot flying (“PF”) inadvertently commanded a steep nose-up pitch change while leveling the airplane’s wings.  The flight crew–a copilot and a relief pilot filling in for the resting captain–recognized the loss of reliable airspeed data but did not conduct the associated checklist procedure.  As a result, “[c]onfusion reigned on the flight deck, and crew coordination vanished.” [21]  Without automatic angle-of-attack protection, the airplane entered a stall.  The crew either believed that the stall warnings were spurious or mistook the airframe buffeting as a sign of an overspeed condition.  When the resting captain was called to return to the flight deck, he continued to apply nose-up flight inputs, when, at such a low altitude, the only possible chance to get the plane back into the flight envelope would have been nose-down inputs.  In addition, the PF almost immediately took back priority without any callout and continued piloting.  The priority takeover by the PF contributed to the de-structuring of the task-sharing between the pilots.  No recovery action was taken, and the A330 remained in a stall as it descended into the sea.

Additional sections of the BEA final report comment on the fragmented nature of the augmented crew, and the fact that some junior officers had far more flight hours in type than some of the more senior crew members, further eroding the opportunity for effective CRM in a surprise situation.

SOPs and CRM Must be Properly Implemented and Adhered To

Disciplined implementation of, and adherence to, SOPs is inseparable from the disciplined implementation of, and adherence to, CRM.  Although this article only scratches the surface on data supporting this conclusion, it is an irrebuttable presumption that if flight crews fully embrace SOPs and CRM, flying will be safer.


[1] Data and Statistics-NTSB-National Transportation Safety Board http://www.ntsb.gov/data/index.html (last visited, October 18, 2013).

[2] Member Robert L. Sumwalt, Standard Operating Procedures:  The Backbone of Professional Flight Operations,  http://www.ntsb.gov/news/speeches_sumwalt.html  September 16, 2013 (last visited October 18, 2013) (unpaginated).

[3] Id. (citing from National Transportation Safety Board Accident Report NTSB/AAR-11/01, PB2011-910401, Crash During Attempted Go-Around After Landing, East Coast Jets Flight 81, Hawker Beechcraft Corporation, 125-800A, N818MV, Owatonna, Minnesota, July 31, 2008).

[4] Id.

[5] ICH Harmonized Tripartite Guidelines For Good Clinical Practice. (1.55.)  May 1, 1996.

[6] Green, R. G., Muir, H., James, M., Gradwell, D., & Green, R. L. (1996) Human Factors for Pilots (2nd ed). Ashgate Publishing Ltd (Hants, England), 1996.

[7] Anderson, Chris.  How to Write Standard Operating Procedures.  Bizmanualz, June 4, 2012.

[8] Poksinska, Bozena; Dahlgaard, Jens Jörn; Antoni, Marc (2002). The State of ISO 9000 Certification: A Study of Swedish Organizations. The TQM Magazine 14 (5): 297.

[9] Nigel H. Croft (2012). ISO 9001:2015 and Beyond – Preparing for the Next 25 Years of Quality Management Standards“. ISO.

[10] FAA Advisory Circular AC 120-71.

[11] Reference to Lautman-Gallimore Study.  Member Robert L. Sumwalt, Standard Operating Procedures:  The Backbone of Professional Flight Operations  http://www.ntsb.gov/news/speeches_sumwalt.html  September 16, 2013 (last visited October 18, 2013) (unpaginated).

[12] R. Khatwa & R. Helmreich, cited in Member Robert L. Sumwalt, Standard Operating Procedures:  The Backbone of Professional Flight Operations  http://www.ntsb.gov/news/speeches_sumwalt.html  September 16, 2013 (last visited October 18, 2013) (unpaginated).

[13] Diehl, Alan (2013) “Air Safety Investigators: Using Science to Save Lives-One Crash at a Time.” Xlibris Corporation. ISBN 9781479728930. http://www.prweb.com/releases/DrAlanDiehl/AirSafetyInvestigators/prweb10735591.htm.

[14] UNITED AIR LINES, INC. “McDONNELL-DOUGLAS DC-8-61, N8082U PORTLAND, OREGON : DECEMBER 28, 1978.” National Transportation Safety Board. December 28, 1978. 9 (15/64).

[15] Cooper, G.E., White, M.D., & Lauber, J.K. (Eds.) 1980. “Resource Management on the Flight Deck,” Proceedings of a NASA/Industry Workshop (NASA CP-2120).

[16] Helmreich, R. L.; Merritt, A. C.; Wilhelm, J. A. (1999).  “The Evolution of Crew Resource Management Training in Commercial Aviation.”  International Journal of Aviation Psychology.  9 (1): 19–32.

[17] Diehl, Alan (June, 1994). “Crew Resource Management… It’s Not Just for Fliers Anymore.” Flying Safety, USAF Safety Agency.

[18] Hellenic Air Accident Investigation and Aviation Safety Board.  Aircraft Accident Report 11/2006, Helios Airways Flight HCY522, Boeing 737-315, at Grammatiko, Hellas, 14 August 2005.

[19] Id.

[20] The following summary of the facts and conclusions associated with AF 447 is based on the English translation of the BEA’s “Final Report on the Accident on 1st June 2009 to the Airbus A330-203, Registered F-CZCP, operated by Air France, Flight AF 447, Rio de Janeiro-Paris”.  The report is available in English and the original French at www.bea.aero.

[21] Mark Lacagnina, Sustained Stall: Blocked Pitot Tubes, Excessive Control Inputs and Cockpit Confusion Doomed Air France 447, http://flightsafety.org/aerosafety-world-magazine/august-2012/sustained-stall (accessed October 22, 2013).