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The Fault Lines in Aviation

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

[This article is authored by Mili Budhiraja, Faculty of Law, University of Delhi]


"All I could see was fire. I had to jump to get to safety." [1]

This is how Muhammad Zubair survived the plane crash incident In Karachi which claimed the lives of 98 people. On 22nd May, the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) passenger plane crashed into a residential area. 

One month after the crash, after a detailed probing, the investigating agencies involved came to the conclusion that the crash was due to human error [2]. It was found that the pilots ignored automated warnings and directions from air traffic controllers. This is serious negligence on the part of the pilots to commit. The Pakistan Aviation Minister also brought to notice the alarming statistic about Pakistani Aviation, wherein approximately 40% of the pilots use fake licenses. 

Through this piece, the author seeks to bring to light the investigating mechanisms in probing an aircraft accident and the need for stricter regulations in the aviation sector.

The Law Concerning Aircraft Accidents

An ‘Aircraft Accident’ is defined under Annex 13 of International Civil Aviation Organization Convention (Chicago Convention) [3] as an occurrence associated with the operation of an aircraft in which a person is fatally injured, or in which an aircraft sustains damage that adversely affects the structural strength of the aircraft. As per the regulations of the ICAO, there can be four participant States in an aircraft investigation:

    1. The State of Occurrence;

    2. The State of Aircraft’s Registry;

    3. The State of the Operator; and

    4. The State of Design and Manufacture 

The accident investigation authority shall have independence in the conduct of the investigation and shall have unrestricted authority over its conduct, consistent with the provisions of Annex 13. This is important for the impartial probing as taking liability in such cases comes with a heavy price. Usually, nations take the defence on inevitable technical faults to evade responsibility.

In this case, there was a dearth of evidentiary reasons to explain the crash occurrence. Therefore, an investigation in accordance with Annex 13 was conducted.

The powers given to the State of Occurrence in relation to the investigation in case of domestic crashes are unrestricted [4]. This usually results in the concealment of culpability in such matters. The purpose of Annex 13 is not fixing of liability, but prevention of future accidents through solving the problems faced in a crash, but where the airliner is a national flag carrier, the governments may want to conceal the inadequacies in their civil aviation machinery. It is because the aviation sector of any country provides services to international passengers as well. And this adds to their responsibility to take effective precautions and active steps to ensure safe flight.

The Percolating Issues

The present case, where the cause of the crash is human error, has highlighted the need to construct strict licensing regulations. In a country where fake licensing systems exist, it raises an important question on the lives of the civilians who choose aviation as their mode of travel. It is owing to the inefficiency of pilots that the engines of the airliner were severely damaged, resulting in the crash. This has massively impacted the image of the PIA. Prior to the investigation, it was stated that the crash was due to engine failure. The external agents and global attention involved in the investigation prove how a state can evade accountability to safeguard its imagery. 

Though a number of pilots with bogus licenses have been grounded after this incident, the danger that hovered over the Pakistan Aviation Sector was significant. This shows the fault lines running deep in the administration of the aviation sector of Pakistan. The quantum of risk that its aviation industry is coloured with raises the need to make similar investigations in the aviation industry of other countries.

Need for Regulation and Amendments

This requires that the ICAO shall construct a permanent global investigatory authority with powers granted to conduct an investigation in both contracting and non-contracting states. Since the primary objective of Annex 13 is ascertaining the cause and resolving the issues surfacing in an aircraft accident, a foreign investigating agency would provide the impartiality and credibility to the investigating results. It is because of the unreasonable powers that have been given to the host state to investigate in case of a domestic crash, that the purpose of such investigation is markedly defeated. In January of 2020, a Ukraine International Airliner [5] crashed into Iran. Earlier Iran stated that the reason for the crash was technical negligence, but owing to global pressure it admitted to the finding that its armed forces, Islamic Guard Corps erroneously launched air missiles on the Ukrainian passenger jet claiming the lives of 176 people. This shows that leniency in the rules of the Chicago Convention gives the states an evasive mechanism to extrapolate facts and keep their imagery untarnished. 

At the domestic front, states should construct strict licensing systems in the aviation sector. The leniency, corruption, and nepotism shall not be tolerated. The people who choose to travel through air mode shall not be put in a situation of massive risk. Fake license holders shall be penalised and the authorities granting such licenses without strict considerations shall be held accountable as well. A large number of people all around the world entrust their lives with airliners. Apart from the inevitable technical mishaps that occur regardless of any intervention by any agent, inconsistencies that are highly avoidable shall not be the cause of the death of hundreds of people. 

In conclusion, along with the need to amend the Chicago Convention to suit the present-day global aviation community, there is a need to regulate licensing systems. A standard regulation protocol shall be made in this regard and duly complied with by the members of the ICAO so that the corrupt practices and inadequacies in licensing could be eliminated. The world community greatly relies on the Aviation Sector today. The cracks in its administration and regulation have a wide impact.


[1] BBC News, available here

[2] BBC News, available here

[3] Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, 1947

[4] Chapter 4 & 5, Annex 13 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation (edn. 11th, 2016)

[5] The Times of India, available here

©Image Courtesy: Brill & Rilandi- The Law Firm, here.



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