Nothing is more terrifying than an airplane accident. Any airplane crash is sure to garner headlines for days — or longer — as government agencies struggle to determine the cause. And fatal accidents will be headline news no matter where they occur.

Air travel remains the safest mode of transportation in America. However, flying does mean placing your life in the hands of the pilots and mechanics who operate the airplane. Flying may be safe, but it doesn’t always seem that way when you hear about another accident on the news.

How Common Are Airplane Crashes?

According to the National Safety Council (NSC), air travel within the United States remains extremely safe. It is so safe, in fact, that the NSC cannot calculate the average person’s lifetime risk of dying in a fatal crash in a commercial airplane.

In 2021, there were no commercial airplane accidents that resulted in deaths. The only serious accidents involved commuter aircraft or air taxis. In general, flying is far safer than the drive to the airport or even the shuttle from the parking lot to the terminal. 

However, airplanes are not flawless flying machines. Once you’re in the air, your life depends on thousands of parts working perfectly. There are few crashes, but the causes are distressingly common. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the civil aviation authority tasked with ensuring that airplanes and pilots are safe, but the agency can't prevent all accidents.

The Leading Causes of Airplane Accidents

Airplane accidents rarely have one single cause. The investigating agency can rarely point to one bolt or one person and say, “That is the only reason this plane crashed.” However, some causes appear more frequently during investigations. Navigation errors, bad weather, and running out of fuel are less common today, but other things happen in connection with these mistakes.

Pilot Error

Pilots are, as they say, only human. They are prone to mistakes and lapses in judgment like any other person. Flying requires years of training and thousands of hours in the cockpit to become proficient. Still, pilots can make mistakes that result in crashes. Pilot errors can include:

  • Fatigue — lack of sleep, inadequate rest periods, or other stressors can make pilots tired and unable to focus on flying
  • Improper training or lack of experience
  • Intoxication
  • Violation of procedures, such as the “sterile cockpit rule” that prohibits extraneous conversation in the cockpit 30 minutes before takeoff

Pilot error may also include the crew on board the plane. If the flight attendants neglect a task that jeopardizes the plane, they may be liable for the accident in the same way as the pilots. Anything that prevents pilots from performing at peak efficiency is considered “pilot error.” Pilot error is sometimes called “human factors.” 

Air Traffic Control Negligence

Pilots rely on air traffic controllers to relay important information about conditions near the runway as they prepare to land. Pilots need information about wind speed, weather, and other planes on the runway. If the controllers fail to transmit this information promptly, pilots may be unable to make corrections in time.

For instance, an accident at Los Angeles International Airport was caused when an air traffic controller lost track of a turboprop taxiing to a takeoff position and cleared a 737 to land on the same runway. Twenty-three people died when the larger plane crushed the turboprop and burst into flames. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report placed most of the blame on the controller.

Equipment Failure

Mechanical failure has plagued aircraft since they first took to the skies. Today, airplanes rely on hundreds of thousands of parts made by hundreds of manufacturers. Planes depend on a concept called “redundancy,” meaning that if one part fails, another part is there to pick up the slack. When multiple parts fail, the plane fails as well.

Equipment failure may include poorly designed or badly placed instruments. In the early days of the Airbus, crashes occurred because the heavily computerized cockpit featured a “go-around” command that could be triggered with a single touch of a switch but required several steps to disengage it.

Fuel Tank Explosions

In 1996, TWA Flight 800 exploded on takeoff from John F. Kennedy airport in New York. A lengthy investigation by the NTSB determined that the cause was overheating in the center fuel tank. Faulty and cracking wiring ignited fumes in the tank and ripped the plane in half.

Fuel tank explosions are comparatively rare but devastating because they involve the entire plane. There is virtually no way to survive such a failure of the entire plane, and no pilot can recover from such an accident.

Establishing Liability in Aviation Accidents and Incidents

Determining the cause of a civil aviation accident can take a long time. An NTSB investigation may take years, and no liability can be assigned until they have pinpointed the ultimate cause of the accident.

In most cases, the airline will be the primary entity responsible. They are responsible for hiring pilots, maintaining the plane, and ensuring the safety of the passengers. 

However, depending on the outcome of the investigation, it may not be quite so straightforward. When Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed his plane in the French Alps in 2015, it took more than a year to determine that it was an intentional crash, not an accident.

For this reason, victims must be prepared for a long wait in an airplane accident claim and resist the temptation to give up or accept the first settlement they’re offered.

Let's Discuss Your Airplane Accident Claim

If you or a loved one have been the victim of an airplane accident, you are probably confused, angry, and hurt. You need to know your rights and what you should do to get the compensation you deserve for your injuries and losses.

Taking on the airlines and their legal departments isn’t something you can do alone. You need the backing of an attorney with the skills and experience to fight and win at the settlement table and in court.

When you need an airplane accident attorney, contact Ratzan Weissman & Boldt to review your case. We will give you our honest opinion and compassionate advice. Call us or use our intake form to set up an appointment today.