Air Transport World

In disaster's wake.

Airlines need to be ready to respond properly to an accident, be it with sympathy or with a legal defense

NEW YORK--An airline's worst nightmare is that one of its planes has gone down, killing or injuring passengers and crew. Fortunately, as terrifying a dream as a nightmare is, most of the time it is just that--a dream.

Unfortunately, sometimes, the nightmare is more than just a dream. The loss of Swissair's Flight 111 off the coast of Nova Scotia the evening of Sept. 2 was one of those nightmares come true.

Aside from the tragic human consequences, aircraft disasters expose airlines and their insurance carriers to serious financial liabilities and often, protracted litigation. Witness the aftermath of the shootdown of the Korean Air 747 by a Soviet pilot or the destruction of the Pan Am 747 by a terrorist's bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland. We have yet to know the final legal outcome of the explosion of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island. Will some of the victims' families blame the airline for failing to correct frayed wiring in the plane's fuel tank, or the manufacturer, Boeing, for defective design, or the U.S. government for the far-fetched claim that a Navy missile shot down the aircraft?

Of course, aircraft disasters are worst-case scenarios. But plaintiffs also may pursue airlines for less-serious reasons. For instance, for injuries caused by baggage falling from overhead bins or for injuries sustained in sudden descents due to clear-air turbulence, or for indignities suffered by unruly passengers when they are restrained by crew members, or for sexual harassment or discrimination against employees, or for damaged or lost cargo, or for any number of relatively minor occurrences.

If the airline is covered by appropriate insurance, the insurance carrier pays to defend against the claims and also pays the damages if the case is settled out of court or is lost at trial. This does not mean that the airline is home free. The agreed settlement or assessed damages may exceed the insurance coverage. …

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