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The science and art of flight, encompassing the functioning and ownership of aircraft vehicles from balloons to those that travel into space.

Aviation is travel by means of an aircraft that is heavier than air. Aerospace is a term used in reference to the atmosphere and the area beyond. The aerospace industry is involved with the planning and building of vehicles operating in both air and space.

Airspace is the region that extends above real property. Air transportation, as set forth by federal statute, refers to interstate and distant conveyance of people, cargo, and mail by U.S. and foreign aircraft vehicles.

Airspace Rights

The federal government has jurisdiction over airspace within its domain, and each state has authority over the space above the grounds within its borders except in places within the domain of federal regulation. An aircraft is subject to the authority of the federal government and to the authority of a particular state while traveling over it. Landowners have air rights that extend upward beyond their property, the boundaries of which are delineated by local Zoning ordinances. These air rights ordinarily may be used to the extent that they are connected to the enjoyment of the property.

Since the general public has a right to freedom of travel in the navigable airspace of the United States, an aircraft may have legal access to airspace above private property. A landowner might have a civil Cause of Action for Trespass or Nuisance, however, where an aircraft enters landowner's airspace in such manner as to constitute an infringement on the landowner's right to the use and possession of the property. In some instances the landowner is entitled to an Injunction to prohibit unlawful intrusion of his or her airspace.

Air Transportation Regulation

The Federal Aviation Administration(FAA) is the agency with the authority to govern air commerce. The intent of such regulation is to advance the growth and safety of air travel while simultaneously satisfying national defense needs. The director of the FAA has the power to engage in, or monitor, work and testing that will bring about the production of advanced aircraft; to set forth prescribed rules and regulations for the planning and servicing of airplanes; and to administer stringent sanctions if the regulations are not observed. The FAA is also responsible for air traffic control at airports. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is charged with the responsibility of investigating the circumstances surrounding, and the causes of, accidents involving aircraft.

Certificate Requirements

An airplane must have a valid airworthiness certificate in order for it to be lawfully operated. The airworthiness of a plane is determined by an inspector authorized by the FAA. The inspector may neither delegate this duty to inspect the aircraft nor depart from procedures for inspection that have been prescribed by the administrator of the FAA.

The FAA administrator is empowered to create minimum standards for the inspection, maintenance, and repair of air carrier equipment as well as for safe operation of the vehicle. Another important function of the administrator is to issue certificates to eligible aeronautical personnel: that includes pilots, navigators, and people who inspect, maintain, overhaul, and repair aircraft. The administrator specifies the particular function that each of these individuals is qualified to perform.

Certain prerequisites exist for an airline pilot rating, including a great degree of technical skill, medical fitness, care, judgment, and emotional stability. If public safety is endangered, the FAA administrator will either revoke or suspend a pilot's license. A pilot is entitled to notice and a fair hearing before the revocation or suspension of his or her certification, absent an emergency that warrants immediate action. The pilot may appeal the order of suspension or revocation to the NTSB, and subsequent appeals may be brought to the usual appellate channels of federal courts ordinarily beginning in a U.S. district court.

Regulation on the State and Local Level

A state or municipality has the authority to regulate the air traffic that affects it. This power, however, is limited by the condition that the regulation must not interfere or conflict with either interstate commerce or federal restraints. State or municipal regulations on noise precipitated by aircraft engines may not, for example, conflict with federal rules governing noise Pollution.

Airport Operation

The state can give a local legislature the power to regulate airports and their connected facilities. States may join together to form a regional airport authority to operate an airport. An airport may also be built and maintained by a private party or a corporation, subject to the requirement that use and enjoyment of neighboring landowners' property is not unreasonably disrupted.

Airports that are not properly constructed and operated might amount to nuisances. A private homeowner can sue for damages in the event that an improperly run airport constitutes a nuisance, and can attempt to have the court suspend its operation pursuant to the provisions of an injunction. Notice must be given to the municipality before such a cause of action may be commenced against it. In considering the need for intervention concerning the building and operation of airports, courts examine the interests of the concerned parties in light of prevailing public policy in favor of encouraging quiet use and enjoyment of one's land compared to the interests of society in accessible and convenient air travel.

The creation and maintenance of airports are subject to zoning regulations. In certain jurisdictions a public agency is empowered by the state to adopt zoning laws that limit the use of adjacent property. Such ordinances are designed to reduce interference with the operation of the airport.

The owner of a public airport may arrange leases for its use, and a municipality that owns an airport may charge reasonable fees for the right to do business there. A public airport owner has the power to govern its ground transportation, to give qualified individuals and companies exclusive privileges to transport passengers to and from the airport, and to run an automobile rental company on airport grounds.

Use and Ownership of Aircraft Vehicles

The legality of the sale or conveyance of an aircraft is regulated by the statute of the jurisdiction where the document of conveyance or sale is transferred.

Federal law mandates the registration of aircraft and the proper recording of any paper that affects its title, such as a mortgage. Such recording must take place at the administration and records branch of the FAA. In addition, documents creating security interests in the aircraft must be recorded to provide notice to prospective purchasers of prior claims to the vehicle.

General principles of contract law govern aircraft rental and parties to the agreement are ordinarily bound by its terms. The renter of a defective vehicle might, however, has the right to terminate the contract since the individual offering the aircraft for rent is obligated to provide a vehicle in satisfactory operating condition.

Duties in Aircraft Operation

An individual who is injured as a result of the operation of an aircraft usually has a legally enforceable right to damages for any injuries or losses sustained.

Manufacturers A manufacturer is under a duty to exercise reasonable care and proficiency in the design, production, and assembly of an aircraft vehicle. Liability for a departure from this duty may be extended to the manufacturer regardless of whether that company was directly involved in the manufacture of the parts. The law will imply a Warranty of proper design and manufacture of an aircraft. A manufacturer of parts will also be held responsible for damage caused by the product and must use a high degree of care in their production, although they need not be made accident-proof. A manufacturer is not relieved of a continuing obligation to improve the component parts of an air vehicle when there is continuing risk to safe travel.

Pilots The pilot of a private aircraft is subject to ordinary Negligence standards in the absence of a special law. The pilot is required to exercise ordinary, but not extreme, care and caution regarding its operation. Negligence rules, however, impose a greater standard of care when applied to aviation, because of the severity and magnitude of potential harm posed by improper operation of an aircraft.

Owners Generally ownership of an aircraft vehicle is insufficient to render an owner liable for damage resulting from its unreasonable operation by another. In certain jurisdictions, however, an owner who lends a plane to an individual he or she knows to be reckless or incompetent will be held responsible. Similarly, the federal or state government cannot evade liability for damage arising out of the improper operation of its aircraft by government employees.

Passengers Passengers in a private aircraft have the obligation to exercise reasonable care for their own well-being. They must subscribe to the reasonable person standard and refrain from going on a particular flight that would be an obvious danger, such as a flight during a hurricane.

Passengers on airlines and other air common carriers must observe safety precautions by obeying instructions of flight attendants, such as by fastening their seatbelts.

Operators of Airplanes An airport operator has the duty to exercise ordinary care in protecting aircraft on its premises and the people who use airport facilities. Neglecting to maintain the airport premises in a reasonably safe condition results in tort liability for resulting injuries to persons present.

Air Traffic Control

The federal government has responsibility for air traffic control. Air traffic controllers have a duty to keep aircraft from colliding with each other by guiding their paths. Liability can be extended to the federal government for the negligence of its air traffic controllers. Contributory negligence by the individual harmed might, however, prevent recovery against the United States for damage caused only partially by the negligence of controllers.


An airline has the duty to employ the greatest degree of care possible to protect its passengers. Liability might be imposed for harm to a passenger resulting from wrongful behavior of its employees. It must also take steps to guard passengers against misconduct of fellow passengers.

Companies that accept goods for air transport must exercise a high degree of care to properly handle and deliver such goods. Liability for loss or damage may be restricted to a prearranged amount, which must be listed on the passenger's ticket in the case of baggage or on the bill of lading regarding the goods shipped.

Flying Schools

A flying school that maintains facilities that interfere with the customary use and enjoyment of property by neighboring landowners can be liable for nuisance or trespass. A student pilot flying with a flight instructor is considered legally to be a passenger, and, therefore, the school owes the same duty of care to the student as a commercial airline owes to its passenger. A trainee, however, assumes certain risks while being taught to fly and the school can successfully assert the defense of assumption of the risk in tort cases. A member of a flight club, as an owner of an airplane that belongs to the club, may be held personally liable for accidents that might occur while he or she is piloting the craft. Statutes that govern the liability of a flight club member should be consulted.

Following the september 11th terrorist attacks, Congress moved to tighten regulations on flying schools. Terrorists who hijacked and crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had trained at flying schools in the United States. The goal of the post-September 11 reform is to make information about foreign flight school enrollees more readily accessible to law enforcement agencies. Under the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, flying schools are one of several types of educational institutions required to participate in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) implemented by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Exempt from federal privacy restrictions, SEVIS is a database of information about foreign students, such as identification, visa status, and criminal data. Flying schools failing to participate in SEVIS may lose their ability to enroll international students. Under broadened powers granted by the PATRIOT Act, the U.S. Attorney General may make use of such information to seize educational records, conduct surveillance, bypass certain Search Warrant requirements, and take into custody Aliens whose visa status is in violation.

Air Piracy

Aircraft Piracy or an attempt to hijack an airplane is a federal offense, punishable by either death or imprisonment. Airlines can deny an individual passage on an airplane if a magnetometer (an instrument used to measure magnetic intensity) indicates the presence of a metal object, such as a weapon, on that person by registering a positive reading and the person refuses to surrender to the appropriate officials any metal object that might have triggered the instrument.


The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established by Congress to organize, direct, and carry out research into difficulties attached to flight within and beyond the atmosphere of the earth and to facilitate the development and functioning of aeronautical vehicles.

Further readings

Fixel, Rowland W. 1999. The Law of Aviation. Holmes Beach, Fla.: Gaunt.

Hamilton, J. Scott. 2001. Practical Aviation Law. 3d ed. Ames: Iowa State Univ. Press.

Institute of Air & Space Law's Air and Aviation Law Website.Available online at <> (accessed November 10, 2003).

Journal of Air Law and Commerce Website. Available online at <> (accessed November 10,2003).

Rollo, Vera A. Foster. 2000. Aviation Law: An Introduction. 5th ed. Lanham, Md.: Maryland Historical Press.


Airlines; Carriers; Federal Aviation Administration; Hijacking; National Transportation Safety Board; Pilot; Terrorism.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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