The safety records of airplane travel have largely improved with each passing decade. But crashes do still happen, and they are usually not the kind of accident from which one can get up and walk away. It’s important to be aware of the risks of this increasingly convenient and cost-effective form of travel. You should also be aware of airline liability and what loved ones are entitled to in the event of a crash, which will vary widely based on circumstance.

Was the Accident Preventable by the Airline?

Roughly half of all plane crashes in the modern era occur as a result of pilot error. In these cases, the airline may be determined to be at fault. If policies such as poor screening and training or excessive required working hours contribute to fatigue or other issues that impact the crash the airline is liable.

Even in the case of weather-caused accidents, the airline may still be partially responsible if an investigation finds that with proper maintenance, the plane would likely have made it through safely.

In 2019, Boeing started a $50 million fund, which offered payouts of $145,000 to each of the 346 victims of the two Boeing 737 MAX plane crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia. Both accidents were caused by computer malfunctions that should have been fixed before the 737 MAX debuted on the public market.

Other weather conditions may lead to freak accidents for which the airline is not responsible. Terrorist attacks or foreign, hostile actions such as a missile strike are usually not going to be cases where the airline is determined to be at all at fault.

An exception to this are cases where miscommunication on the part of the pilots lead to the plane drifting off its charted path and into hostile territory. That was the case in the 1980 shootdown of a Korean airliner by Soviet fighter planes when the airliner drifted off its assigned flight path.

What Are the Primary Causes of Plane Crashes?

  • Pilot error – While there may be multiple factors that culminate in a plane going down, pilot-error remains the cause of roughly 50% of all accidents, ranging from distraction, misreading instruments, poor communication between crew, and recklessness.
  • Bad weather – Although modern jets are built to withstand and resist a lightning strike and even very severe turbulence, the weather can be unpredictable. Really bad storms can develop quickly and prove to be deadly. Storms can also have such adverse effects as freezing measuring instruments. That was the case in the 2009 Air France flight lost over the Atlantic during a night storm, with French aviation authorities ultimately blaming both the pilots and technical failures for the crash.
  • Technical failures – Modern jets are complex pieces of machinery performing potentially hazardous operations and it only takes a few broken pieces for the whole thing to fall out of the sky. These technical failures may be the airline’s fault if the company skipped necessary maintenance or replacements.

What Does the Law Say About Airline Liability?

Plane travel is often international, involving multiple nationalities reflected in both the crew and passengers on any given flight. Because of this, plane crash liability is one of the few areas in which precedence and regulation are set by international agreements. The most recent of these agreements is the 1999 Montreal Convention, whose stipulations went into force in 2003.

According to these standards, when the airline is not at fault for the crash, it is still liable for a series of credits amounting to approximately $170,000 for each passenger. Remember, while this figure might seem low, it only applies to cases where the airline bears no culpability. When the airline is responsible for the crash, that liability shield gets eliminated, and there is no upper limit of funds that victims’ families can receive.

When airlines are partially at fault, the percentage that their negligence or failings contributed to the crash gets factored into the determination of liability for which they owe the families of the accident’s victims.

Being the victim of another party’s negligence or ill intent can take a hard toll. But a personal injury lawyer could at least help provide some financial relief.