On any given day, more than 2 million Americans are airborne on commercial flights in the skies of the United States. Thousands of additional citizens are flying in private and/or corporate aircraft as well as other “public use” aircraft such as helicopters. Add together all of the flights worldwide, and you are looking at approximately 3 million people being airborne on any single day.
Generally, flying is very safe and the probability of arriving at one’s destination routinely is very high. However, flying is very unforgiving and the occasional accident or incident due to human or technical error does occur.
Aviation Accident vs. Incident
When safety protections break down, they do so with varying intensity. Not all events are fatal and, indeed, more non-fatal events do occur. This is the reason why it is important to distinguish between an aviation accident and an aviation incident.
An aviation accident is the most serious and may be defined as such if at least one person is killed or hospitalized for longer than 24 hours and/or the aircraft is destroyed or substantially damaged. Thus, it is possible to have an aviation accident in which no people are seriously injured but the aircraft is lost as was the case early in 2008 with the loss of a British Airways B777 at Heathrow Airport. Also meeting the test of an aviation accident was the 1997 loss of a TWA B747 flying out of New York when a fuel tank exploded and all 230 persons aboard were killed and the aircraft was destroyed.
Other mishaps occur in which people are not hurt and the aircraft is not damaged or has only received minor damage. These events are known as incidents. Tracking them is important, and an incident may be described as “an accident that got lucky.” As such, incidents are indicators of the relative safety of air transportation as there might be 100 incidents which occur for every aviation accident. The study of incidents may help to reduce the risk of accidents.
It might be said that only a few feet or a few seconds make the difference between an incident and an accident. Consider runway incursions or near-misses between aircraft and ground vehicles at an airport – runway incursions or the loss of safe separation between aircraft in the airport environment occur on a daily basis. Indeed, the threat is so great that all manner of improved signage, lighting, and procedures has been adopted to reduce the risk. For example, new taxiways have been built to reduce the frequency with which aircraft must cross one runway to get to another.
For additional information about plane crash law and aviation safety or to discuss an aviation lawsuit, please contact us at Nolan Law Group.
Aviation Accident Aftermath
When an aviation accident occurs, usually within 24 hours, the NTSB launches a “go team” to the accident site to begin the process of data collection. For general aviation accidents, the NTSB is supposed to investigate all such accidents involving fatalities, but the actual investigation is assigned to one of the NTSB’s regional offices and the resulting report is less structured.
For transport-category accidents, the NTSB’s initial effort is focused on recovery of the cockpit voice and flight data recorders (CVR/FDR) from the wreckage, securing tapes and other air traffic control records, and collecting weather reports and maintenance data on the accident aircraft. Basically, the initial effort is focused on data collection.
The NTSB works closely with parties to the investigation, appointed by the NTSB. The parties may include the various unions (pilot, maintenance and air traffic control), the aircraft manufacturer, the airport authority, and the operating company. The family groups are not represented by a party. The NTSB also has a family affair office whose job it is to provide a steady flow of authorized information to the families durring the course of the investigation. The investigation effort is usually divided among various NTSB groups, such as the recorder group and the maintenance group.
As soon as the active period of investigation concludes, which can be a year or more after the accident, documents collected and generated by the NTSB, including factual reports with supporting materials, are placed in the public docket. The factual reports do not contain a finding of the accident’s probable cause.
The NTSB may elect to conduct a public hearing with regard to an accident, but such a hearing is not mandatory. When a hearing is conducted, family members are afforded reserved seating away from the public at-large, and they also may receive special briefings by the NTSB on the issues under investigative scrutiny. These fact-finding hearings can take anywhere from a day to a full week, depending on the complexity of the case. It can be anywhere from one to four years after the accident when the NTSB holds a so-called “sunshine hearing” at which time the findings, probable cause and recommendations are publicly discussed. Sunshine hearings are open to the public and family members who are again accorded special seating and progress briefings. Sunshine hearings generally conclude within a day after which letters of recommendation for corrective action are sent to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other relevant state and federal agencies.
The final accident report is usually published between three weeks and six months after the hearing. It should be mentioned that documents may continue to be filed in the NTSB’s public docket throughout this period.
If there is no sunshine hearing which may be the case with general aviation accidents, the NTSB investigator-in-charge submits a proposed final report to the Board whose members discuss it among themselves without a hearing. A probable cause is adopted and the report is published.
During or immediately following an investigation, the NTSB will issue recommended corrective actions, the timing of which may be based on past recommendations and/or the urgency of the situation. Keep in mind, these recommendations are not binding. It can take one to ten years for the FAA to adopt a recommendation and implement changes, usually in the form of an airworthiness directive to correct a deficiency or in a change to the certification regulations by which aircraft are designed. Aircraft manufacturers, operators and airports may implement corrective actions sooner than mandated by the FAA.
The FAA may not agree with a particular NTSB recommendation which can lead to a war of letters between the two agencies. This “war of letters” can culminate with the NTSB closing a recommendation and giving an “unacceptable response” characterization as it did for a recommendation calling for child restraint seats on an airplane which the FAA rejected as not passing the test of a cost-benefit calculation.
In some cases, Congressional action may be needed to implement an NTSB recommendation, but the NTSB does not directly lobby Congress for such action. In truth, family associations may have more effect in this regard.
Suffice it to say that an aviation accident sets into motion an investigative process that can take one or more years to complete. Corrective action, if adopted by the FAA, can take 10 years to put into place and even longer to complete (i.e., electrical wiring, identified as a fleetwide hazard in the TWA investigation in 1996, for which the FAA only recently issued inspection requirements).
For additional information about aviation safety, please contact us at Nolan Law Group.
How and Why Mishaps Occur
There are a variety of reasons for mishaps to occur, the most common being pilot error. However, pilots do not willingly or knowingly commit errors, and behind pilot error there may be a host of factors.
Fatigue, for example, may make a pilot sluggish and complacent, and certainly the modern cockpit harbors a number of traps to catch the unwary pilot. For example, entering the wrong takeoff weight in the computers can lead to incorrect calculations of the distance needed for takeoff. Errors of up to 100 tons have been noted in some aviation accident reports.
A maintenance error can also lead to a mishap or catastrophic aviation accident. A control cable being installed wrong or wiring not being secured properly can have devastating consequences. There are some who believe that maintenance errors are on the increase. The data is far from comprehensive but, anecdotally, indications are that maintenance errors remain a problem.
The airport environment has been described as the most threatening to air safety. In the approach-to-land phase of flight, many aircraft have been lost to collisions with terrain. In fact the problem is so pervasive, it has spawned its own unique acronym: controlled flight into terrain or CFIT. The hazard associated with flying a perfectly sound airplane into the ground has largely been nullified through enhanced ground proximity warning systems (EGPWS) which compare the airplane’s three-dimensional position in the air against a digitized terrain map stored in the airplane’s computer. The system warns pilots when they are in danger of imminent collision with the ground.
While the cruise phase-of-flight has been the safest, airplanes now fly closer to one another along “highways in the sky” and the danger of mid-air collisions is considerable. Aircraft now fly in so-called reduced vertical separation minima (RVSM) airspace with as little as 1,000 feet separating them vertically. Moreover, the tracking accuracy, made possible by new on-board navigation systems, means airplanes flying in opposite directions will be closer to the center of their assigned tracks, increasing the threat of a mid-air collision. Of course, the traffic alert collision avoidance system (TCAS) on board each aircraft is supposed to warn pilots of the danger of colliding with an opposing aircraft but to do this, the TCAS must be turned on and must be obeyed (one aircraft to climb, the other to descend).
Flying is still a human endeavor, subject to failures of design, of maintenance, and of procedures in the air and on the ground.
For additional information about aviation safety, please contact us at Nolan Law Group.
Safety is Relative
Statistically, the safest way to fly is aboard a commercial airliner. The last fatal airline accident in the United States was in Lexington, Kentucky in 2006. Indeed, the commercial airline accident rate is approximately 80 times better than the rate for general aviation (private) airplanes. For example, in 2006, when there were two fatal airline mishaps, there were more than 300 fatal general aviation accidents in which nearly 700 people were killed. Nevertheless, the general aviation accident rate is less than one per day, but the mayhem occurs at an average rate of one fatal accident every 1.2 days.
The accident rate even among the large planes varies. For instance, cargo planes generally crash more frequently than passenger planes. The reasons are found in the type of flying, usually at night, on schedules that put the crew’s circadian rhythm under stress, and cargo planes are generally older than passenger planes. Cargo planes may not have all of the safety systems found on passenger jets and their maintenance can be more problematic.
In-flight icing remains a big killer among operators of turboprop airplanes, and some designs seem more vulnerable to ice accumulation than others.
Helicopters remain in a unique category. They are mechanically complex and fly from both airports and landing pads and even unprepared sites. Interestingly, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) does not maintain unique statistical data on helicopter mishaps.
However, the NTSB has added a new table to its accident statistics, covering sabotage, suicide and terrorism since 1986. The most notable of the events in this table includes the bombing of Pan American Flight 103 in 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States using airliners against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
For additional information, please contact us at Nolan Law Group.
Impact on Victims and Families
An air crash is a traumatic event for air crews, injured passengers, and the families of deceased passengers. An aviation disaster tends to make safety activists out of the surviving family members who lobby Congress for legislative remedies as to the cause of the crash.
The NTSB’s deliberate process of an investigation and aviation litigation will usually produce recommendations for corrective action, but the process will strike some families as maddeningly slow. Moreover, the FAA corrective action will usually take the form of a “fix to an aircraft” design. Rarely will an accident trigger an industry-wide review which would cover more than one aircraft design.
In the immediate aftermath of an aviation accident, airlines may offer accident survivors and families of the victims a financial payment to cover immediate living expenses, without admitting liability. Whenever possible, the airlines will return remains for burial and personal effects, and they may assist in the erection of a suitable memorial.
However, legal assistance from an airplane accident attorney is necessary to resolve the long-term implications of an air disaster, both in terms of final financial settlement with the victims and/or family members and in terms of creating the incentives for industry-wide improvements. Ultimately, the cause of the accident may lie with the airline or operator, component parts, air traffic controllers, airport management, maintenance, human error or fatigue. It is usually a combination of factors.
For additional information about aviation safety and plane crash law, please contact us at Nolan Law Group.