Flying Abroad – Accidents on Board a Plane

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Each year there are around 50 million flight journeys globally, comprising commercial, private, military and business flights. As with any other mode of transport, flight accidents do occur. The most devastating flight accident is of course a crash, which often results in fatality. In 2018 there were a total of 15 fatal airline accidents, resulting in 556 deaths. Despite these figures it has been shown that more than half of the passengers who are involved in plane crashes actually survive. While one death is one too many, when compared to the number of flights taken each year, the risk of dying due to a plane crash remains very small.

Non-fatal flight accidents

While flight crashes result in headline worthy numbers of deaths, there are other types of flight accident that can happen to individual travellers and which are more likely to occur than a fatal plane crash.  A flight accident occurs when a traveller sustains an injury on board a plane or when embarking or disembarking a plane.

According to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, a passenger is counted as being under the care of the aeroplane from the time of boarding, until the time the plane is disembarked.

Flight Accidents

There are myriad ways of suffering a non-fatal injury during a flight. While these types of accident are less likely to make headlines, they can still have a significant impact on the sufferer. Here are just four real-life examples.

  • Severe turbulence can result in injury. This month, an Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Sydney experienced heavy turbulence. Those people who were not buckled into their seats, were thrown towards the ceiling, causing head and neck injuries. One passenger said, ‘Lots of people hit the ceiling, lots of screaming’. At least 35 of the 269 passengers were injured and of these 9 sustained serious injuries.
  • Falling baggage is a common cause of flight injury. Recently, a Ryanair passenger travelling from London to Lisbon, suffered a severe head injury after a laptop fell from the overhead locker and struck her. She had to undergo surgery as a result of her injuries.
  • Slipping on an air stair when boarding the aircraft or leaving the aircraft.
  • Spider bite on board a plane. A passenger was bitten by a venomous spider when travelling to South Africa.

Other flight injuries can come from slips, falls and trips, burns from hot drinks, faulty equipment such as damaged chairs and from collision with the heavy service trolley.

The Montreal Convention

The Montreal Convention (1999) was established by members of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, in order to unify rules around all aspects of aviation, including the treatment of passengers, cargo and luggage.

Under the Convention, airlines must carry liability insurance and are also deemed responsible for accidents that happen to passengers travelling on their airline.

The Montreal Convention also governs personal injury claims. It states that the airline has unlimited liability in the event of death or injury of passengers. For damages up to 113,110 SDRs the airline cannot contest claims for compensation. So, if a claim does not exceed this amount, the claimant does not have to prove the airline was at fault and the airline must pay. Therefore, the need for protracted litigation through the courts is eliminated or reduced.

For claims above the value of 113,110 SDRs, it must be proved that the injuries occurred as a result of the airline’s negligence. In this case, the airline can defend itself in court, by aiming to prove that it was not negligent.

Any court action to claim damages from the airline must occur within 2 years from the date of the incident.

In addition to these compensation claims, if a passenger is injured or killed on a flight, the airline must by law pay at least 16,000 SDRs within 15 days of the accident. The purpose of this funding is to cover any immediate expenses that may be incurred by the victim or their family as a result of the injury.

Supplementary International Reserve/Special Drawing Rights – Compensation

The SDR (Special Drawing Rights) also known as the Supplementary International Reserve is an asset of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which can be exchanged for various IMF member state currencies. The SDR was initially defined as the value equivalent of 0.888 grams of gold, or the value of 1 US dollar and its value is reviewed by the IMF every five years.

Compensation damages paid by airlines to injured customers are measured in SDRs. The SDR calculations ensure that similarly affected passengers receive similarly valued compensation, no matter which country they are from.

Making a claim

If you have suffered an accident on board a plane or when embarking or disembarking a plane, you may be entitled to claim compensation. Compensation is calculated to cover:

  • Expenses incurred as a result of the injury, such as travel costs, loss of earnings and treatment costs.
  • Pain and suffering as a result of the physical injuries (Compensation for psychological injury can only be claimed if the psychological injury was sustained as a result of the physical injury. If a passenger sustained a psychological injury only he/she cannot claim under Montreal convention).

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