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Liabilities Faced by Airlines

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In a legal sense, a liability occurs when one party fails in a duty of care owed to another and the other party comes to harm as a result of it. In a situation like this, the first party has the responsibility to do something to make it up to the second party, usually by paying damages to compensate for the loss.

Flying passengers or cargo from one place to another is fraught with opportunities for damaging mistakes due to carelessness. Therefore, airlines face significant potential liabilities. The first step in protecting themselves legally is for airlines to figure out what, exactly, they can be held liable for.


As attorneys and court reporters Spokane could tell you, the Americans With Disabilities Act applies to airlines just as it applies to most other businesses catering to the public. This means that it has to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. Examples include seating and restroom facilities for people who use wheelchairs or other mobility aids, Braille writing for people with visual impairments, etc. Such accommodations must be functionally equivalent; in other words, they must provide the same level of access that a person without disabilities would have.


Cargo refers to the things an airplane carries apart from any passengers. Cargo can include freight, but the two words are not entirely synonymous. Freight refers to items that have been shipped, but cargo also refers to the belongings that passengers take on a plane in the checked and carry-on baggage. To many passengers, weight limits and other restrictions on baggage can seem arbitrary and pointless. However, there is a reason for them. Too much weight in the form of cargo can make flying too dangerous or prevent the plane from lifting off at all. Even when passengers follow the rules, sometimes it turns out that the cargo is too heavy. When this occurs, the airline sometimes puts the baggage on a different flight to the same location, providing instructions for the passenger to pick up his or her cargo at another time.

Once a bag is checked, it becomes the responsibility of the airline. In other words, if the luggage becomes lost or damaged due to the negligence of the airline or one of its employees, the airline can be liable for any significant damage done to it as a result.

Discrimination or Preference

The law requires that all passengers receive equal treatment. An airline cannot subject any passenger to unreasonable prejudice or unjust treatment, nor can it provide some passengers with preferential treatment. For example, if there is a legitimate reason to believe that a passenger's behavior may be a threat to safety, the airline is justified in refusing to carry that passenger and removing him or her from the plane. Nevertheless, the airline must be able to show a demonstrable rationale for expelling the passenger. Otherwise, the expulsion may be considered wrongful, and the airline can be held liable for it.

Cancellations or Delays

If a flight is cancelled or delayed, the airline may be liable to its passengers depending on the circumstances, such as whether the flight was overbooked or the passengers missed connecting flights as a result. However, it was not always this way. Prior to the Airline Deregulation Act in 1983, passengers could not hold airlines accountable for missed connections, cancellations, or delays.

Safety From Injuries

An airline has a primary responsibility to keep its passengers safe. If negligence causes an injury to a passenger, the airline may be held liable. If gross negligence in the operation of a plane causes injury to people other than passengers, such as people on the ground, the airline may be liable for that as well. Liabilities can be costly. Airlines can protect themselves from lawsuits by making sure planes are in good repair, flight crews are well-trained, communication is clear and effective, and that cargo is within weight limits and accounted for at all times.

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