Six Most Common Causes of Airplane Crashes

February 1, 2024 @ 8:10 pm

Air travel is considered one of the safest modes of transportation in the US thanks to regulatory and oversight bodies like the Federal Aviation Administration, the International Civil Aviation Organization and the National Transportation Safety Board. Nevertheless, aviation incidents and accidents still happen. 

When they do, they leave victims and their families trying to puzzle out what went wrong and what they can do about it. What can help is learning about the most common causes of airplane crashes and what to do if you or loved ones are injured on a plane during a crash or adverse plane incident.

Most Common Causes of Airplane Crashes

Thorough incident investigations over the years have identified and analyzed the elements of a typical airplane crash. While a number of causes are labeled “the most common,” many crashes are the result of a combination of factors that came together to create a emergency.

  • Pilot Error
    Pilot error is often noted as the leading cause of aviation accidents. In 2020, the National Transportation Safety Board found that “69.1% of all general aviation accidents in 2020 were caused by pilot error.” 
    The pilot may have misjudged a situation, made a wrong decision, or lacked knowledge or training. Fatigue, stress and distractions also play a role.
  • Mechanical Failure
    Planes rely on thousands of highly specialized parts, materials and engineering to make their systems work together. Basic systems include the powerplant, propeller, induction and ignition systems as well as the fuel, lubrication, cooling, electrical, landing gear and environmental control systems. 
    One part failure due to fatigue, lack of maintenance or a manufacturing defect, for example, can lead to a crisis. In 2020, engine malfunctions accounted for over 60 percent of mechanical failure crashes.
  • Weather Conditions
    The accuracy of current weather reporting has made flying safer. However, commercial airlines fly long distances in all sorts of weather. Planes may encounter rainstorms, snow, fog, high winds, extreme temperatures and slick surfaces. 
    One of the most common causes of weather-related aircraft accidents involves an unintentional shift from VFR into IMC—when pilots must transition from visual flight rules conditions into instrument meteorological conditions.
  • Air Traffic Control Errors
    Air traffic controllers are constantly coordinating and managing flights within their area of jurisdiction. Controllers have many different roles—from evaluating weather conditions and ensuring planes maintain proper distances to advising pilots of upcoming weather conditions or possible flight issues. If a controller makes a mistake, overlooks an important detail or fails to communicate with a pilot, accidents can result.
  • Bird Strikes
    Bird strikes can happen during takeoff, flight or landing, and the term includes strikes by other creatures like bats and even ground animals. Common bird strike scenarios have involved multiple birds damaging several engines on a craft, encounters with flocks of birds, and single large birds penetrating the windshield or plane panels.
    Most airports manage habitat and deterrents, and air traffic control may advise pilots of possible bird activity.
  • Runway Incursions
    The Federal Aviation Administration defines runway incursions as “any occurrence at an aerodrome involving the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle, or person on the protected area of a surface designated for the landing and takeoff of aircraft.” 

Pilots may deviate from air traffic control instructions, or maintenance crews may move a plane or ground vehicles without permission from traffic control. Poor signage on aircraft or lighting issues, for example, can also play a role.

The Federal Aviation Administration has clear regulations about what an airline or pilot must do following an incident. The top priority is to file a report with the nearest National Transportation Safety Board office. 

Equally important, however, is to inform passengers who may have been injured on what they should do after the event.

What to Do if You Are Injured on a Plane

Rules regarding passengers seem straightforward. At every flight’s beginning, airline crews must provide a passenger briefing detailing the location and operation of seatbelts, air vents, emergency exits and safety equipment. 

In the event of an incident, passengers have a responsibility to remain calm, follow crew instructions and operate safety equipment as directed. What passengers should do following an incident is less clear. If you’ve been injured, these are the four steps we recommend taking:

  • Document the Experience: Preserve any paperwork or correspondence associated with the flight, the incident, any injuries you suffered and all medical care obtained. Keeping records provides a solid reference point that can protect you against uncertainty or alternate accounts later.

  • Write Down a Timeline: Creating a timeline can help organize everything you experienced into a clear sequence of events. Timelines are helpful not only in preserving the timing of events but also in demonstrating possible relationships like cause and effect for your injuries or losses.

  • Reach Out to the Airline for Information: Gather information about what caused the incident or crash to identify the parties who may be responsible. For example, was the cause an unruly passenger, did the plane fly despite concerns during the preflight check, or did a part fail due to a manufacturing defect?

  • Contact a Lawyer for Guidance: If you were harmed in an airline accident due to someone else’s negligence, an experienced aviation attorney can help you determine if you have a case and how to pursue compensation.

Proving fault in an airline accident can be difficult because of the variables involved. Each set of hands that touches a plane—from its initial design and assembly to its last flight—carries potential help or harm.

If you’ve suffered an injury or lost a loved one in a plane accident and need assistance recovering your losses, reach out to the attorneys at Morrow, Morrow, Ryan, Bassett & Haik. Schedule your free consultation, and let us help you navigate the legal skies.

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