Imagine flying on a commercial airliner. A couple hours into the flight, your jet begins to lose pressure and suddenly descends so quickly that your ears ache. Oxygen masks release from overhead. You’re told to put one on and brace for impact. The passengers around you are crying, screaming, and praying. Your heart races, and you wonder if everything might end in one instant.
The plane’s wheels hit the ground with a strong thud. While the landing is violent, everyone on board seems to be okay. Applause erupts in the passengers’ cabin as everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief. You give the pilot a strong handshake and pat on the back before you exit, but you’re still shaken after this traumatic close call. After deplaning, your airline offers you a meal, helps you to get to your final destination, and gives you a $500 credit to use on your next flight.
Hundreds of airplane passengers have this experience every year. While many individuals walk away without serious psychological or emotional trauma, others are permanently scarred and may face severe anxiety for years to come. A recent article in USA Today points out that many passengers do not think that dinner and a $500 gift certificate is adequate compensation for severe emotional trauma.
After the ValuJet flight 592 crash of 1995, Congress passed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance (ADFA) Act of 1996. Immediately after a commercial airline crash in the United States resulting in at least one death, the ADFA Act requires the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board to designate an independent nonprofit organization to be responsible “for coordinating the emotional care and support of the families of passengers involved in the accident.” The airline is responsible for reimbursing the nonprofit organization for funds expended. In short, the ADFA Act recognizes that plane crashes are traumatic events, and passengers on board may need some counseling afterward.
“Close calls” are not addressed by the ADFA Act, so airlines are not legally obligated to provide counseling services to passengers who are involved in non-fatal emergency landings. Sometimes airlines choose to do so, but the law does not actually require it. For example, US Airways sent its family assistance team to provide counseling to passengers on board the highly publicized 2009 emergency landing on the Hudson River.
While traumatized passengers complain that airlines should have some responsibility for providing counseling services after violent emergency landings, airline advocates fear that doing so would open them up to a pandora’s box of potential legal liability.
As with many areas of the law, the difficulty comes in line-drawing. Most of us agree that individuals who are legitimately psychologically injured by a frightening incident in the air should be entitled to some counseling after the fact. On the other hand, flying is an activity with inherent risks, and we expect passengers to be able to handle a little turbulence or a very bumpy landing.
The Fort Lauderdale injury attorneys at Anidjar & Levine frequently represent those injured in aviation accidents. If you or a loved one was recently involved in a commercial or private airplane crash, call 800-747-3733 for a free consultation.