ILNews

Stevenson: Plane crash litigation may improve travel safety

July 31, 2013
Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
Indiana Lawyer Focus

Modern airliners are filled with technology that has made flying safer than ever. According to MIT statistics professor Arnold Barnett, in the last five years, the death rate for airline passengers in the United States has been one in 45 million flights. At that rate, a passenger could fly daily for an average of 123,000 years before being involved in a fatal crash. While technology such as GPS and auto-landing systems has minimized the chance for human error, especially in poor-visibility landing conditions, there is a drawback. Asiana Flight 214 is likely to become a prime example of how technology can actually cause aviation disasters instead of preventing them. Flight 214’s collision with the seawall just short of the runway at San Francisco International Airport demonstrates what can happen when technology does not work as intended.

stevenson Stevenson

On the day of Flight 214’s crash, the instrument landing system was out of service for runway 28 L at San Francisco. An ILS provides navigation guidance for airplanes which can automatically guide an aircraft to the proper touchdown zone on the runway. Due to the ILS being out of service, Flight 214 was cleared for a visual approach to land, which would require the pilots to use visual cues outside the cockpit to help safely guide the aircraft to the runway.

While all pilots should be able to manually fly the aircraft, Flight 214’s approach to landing was never stabilized. The aircraft began the approach high and fast and ended too low and much too slow, ultimately clipping the seawall short of the runway. The target airspeed for the approach was 137 knots. At 1,400 feet above the ground, Flight 214’s airspeed was 170 knots. At 500 feet above the ground it had slowed to 134 knots. At 200 feet above the ground it was traveling 118 knots, well below the approach speed. Just prior to clipping the seawall the aircraft stalled, which means it was going too slow to provide enough airflow over the wings to keep it in the air.

The obvious question is how did Flight 214 get so low and slow, especially in today’s world of advanced aviation technology. The flight data recorder stores information regarding many aspects of the Boeing 777’s flight, navigation, and engine parameters and settings prior to the crash. While the National Transportation Safety Board is still evaluating this data, it is apparent that the pilots were using an autopilot and auto-throttle setting during portions of the approach to land. Without an active ILS, the autopilot system could not have been used to automatically land the aircraft. However, the autopilot can still be used to automatically descend to a set altitude at a set rate. The auto-throttle system on the Boeing 777 is a complex system that adjusts engine settings and flight controls to maintain a set speed.

Flight 214’s auto-throttle setting was likely set at 137 knots during the approach. Depending on what autopilot mode is set, the auto-throttle is supposed to increase power as it approaches the set airspeed. Even if the auto-throttle is put into a hold by the pilot, it is designed to have a “wake-up” feature if it detects that the airspeed is too low.

During post-crash interviews, the pilots stated that they assumed the auto-throttles were maintaining speed. From this statement it is apparent that Flight 214’s pilots put too much trust in the auto-throttle technology. From the flight data recorder, the NTSB will be able to piece together exactly what inputs were made to the autopilot and auto-throttle.

Regardless of what the NTSB finds, the pilots had an obligation to monitor critical flight parameters, like altitude and airspeed, during a landing approach. It also appears that without the aid of the ILS, Flight 214’s pilots were not able to fly a stabilized visual approach. Again, over-reliance on auto-landing technology may be a factor in the pilots’ failure to fly a safe approach. Exactly why the auto-throttle did not increase engine thrust will be an issue addressed in detail by the NTSB and through the civil litigation process as the victims of Flight 214 bring their legal claims.

From a legal perspective, the passengers’ claims against Asiana will be governed by the body of law surrounding the Montreal Convention. The Montreal Convention is an international treaty, which controls air carrier liability for international flights. The Montreal Convention has a two-tiered approach to victim compensation. An airline is strictly liable for damages up to 100,000 special drawing rights. Special drawing rights are a measure of exchange for international currency. Currently 100,000 SDR equals approximately $150,000 U.S. dollars. A passenger may obtain a recovery greater than 100,000 SDR if the airline’s conduct was negligent. It is the airline’s burden to prove that it was not negligent or that some other entity caused the passenger’s injury.

The Montreal Convention also governs where a lawsuit may be filed. It gives the plaintiff several options, including the place of the flight’s contracted departure or destination, or the airline’s principal place of business. A plaintiff who has suffered injury or death also has the option of filing in a court where he or she has a principal and permanent residence. Because it is an international treaty, federal jurisdiction applies in the United States. The various options provided in the jurisdiction provision may lead to vastly different plaintiff recoveries, as passengers domiciled outside the United States may not be able to hold jurisdiction in the U.S. However, lawsuits brought directly against Boeing or other U.S. manufacturers would not be subject to the Montreal Convention, and if not dismissed for forum non conveniens, would provide a means for foreign citizens to bring claims in the United States.

Despite the tragedy of Flight 214, airline travel has never been safer. One of the reasons airline travel has become so safe is the comprehensive review of airline disasters and the attempt to learn how to prevent future catastrophes. Hopefully, the investigation and litigation process surrounding Flight 214 will not only lead to compensation for victims and their families, but also to safer air travel.•

__________

Chris Stevenson graduated from Purdue University’s flight program and began his professional career flying as a commercial pilot on Boeing 727s. He earned his J.D. at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in 2003. As an attorney at Wilson Kehoe Winingham, Stevenson focuses on the firm’s aviation and product liability caseload. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. The is an unsigned editorial masquerading as a news story. Almost everyone quoted was biased in favor of letting all illegal immigrants remain in the U.S. (Ignoring that Obama deported 3.5 million in 8 years). For some reason Obama enforcing part of the immigration laws was O.K. but Trump enforcing additional parts is terrible. I have listed to press conferences and explanations of the Homeland Security memos and I gather from them that less than 1 million will be targeted for deportation, the "dreamers" will be left alone and illegals arriving in the last two years -- especially those arriving very recently -- will be subject to deportation but after the criminals. This will not substantially affect the GDP negatively, especially as it will take place over a number of years. I personally think this is a rational approach to the illegal immigration problem. It may cause Congress to finally pass new immigration laws rationalizing the whole immigration situation.

  2. Mr. Straw, I hope you prevail in the fight. Please show us fellow American's that there is a way to fight the corrupted justice system and make them an example that you and others will not be treated unfairly. I hope you the best and good luck....

  3. @ President Snow - Nah, why try to fix something that ain't broken??? You do make an excellent point. I am sure some Mickey or Minnie Mouse will take Ruckers seat, I wonder how his retirement planning is coming along???

  4. Can someone please explain why Judge Barnes, Judge Mathias and Chief Judge Vaidik thought it was OK to re weigh the evidence blatantly knowing that by doing so was against the rules and went ahead and voted in favor of the father? I would love to ask them WHY??? I would also like to ask the three Supreme Justices why they thought it was OK too.

  5. How nice, on the day of my car accident on the way to work at the Indiana Supreme Court. Unlike the others, I did not steal any money or do ANYTHING unethical whatsoever. I am suing the Indiana Supreme Court and appealed the failure of the district court in SDIN to protect me. I am suing the federal judge because she failed to protect me and her abandonment of jurisdiction leaves her open to lawsuits because she stripped herself of immunity. I am a candidate for Indiana Supreme Court justice, and they imposed just enough sanction so that I am made ineligible. I am asking the 7th Circuit to remove all of them and appoint me as the new Chief Justice of Indiana. That's what they get for dishonoring my sacrifice and and violating the ADA in about 50 different ways.

ADVERTISEMENT