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Liability of Air Traffic Controllers

Torts: Transportation Torts: Aviation

Air traffic controllers are responsible for the flow of air traffic in and around airports. The controllers must be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The duties of the controllers are set forth in operations manuals that are prepared by the FAA. The controllers must transmit the information that is set forth in the manuals and must take all steps that are necessary for the safety of pilots and passengers.

Air traffic controllers generally operate within three types of facilities. Those facilities include the tower, the approach control, and the air route traffic controller center. The controllers in the tower are responsible for the visible separation of airplanes and the flow of traffic in and around an airport. The approach control is a radar facility that monitors aircraft within 25 to 50 miles of an airport. The air route traffic controller center monitors aircraft during flights. Both the approach control and the air route traffic controller center provide information to pilots who are operating under instrument flight rules or visual flight rules.

Air traffic controllers have a duty to exercise ordinary care in the performance of their duties. If the controllers breach that duty, they may be liable for negligence. The controllers have an additional duty to warn pilots of hazards of which the pilots may not be aware, such as power poles and power lines at the end of a runway. The controllers do not have a duty to warn pilots of hazards of which the pilots are aware, such as avoiding a collision when an aircraft is operating under visual flight rules and not instrument flight rules. The controllers do not have a duty to anticipate unlawful or negligent acts on the part of pilots.

An air traffic controller has a duty to warn a pilot of hazardous weather conditions when the controller has actual knowledge of the weather conditions and when the pilot is unaware of the weather conditions. The controller also has a duty to warn the pilot when he or she previously provided erroneous information regarding the weather to the pilot. The controller further has a duty to warn the pilot of hazardous weather conditions, even if the pilot is aware of the weather conditions, when the danger to the aircraft could be severe.

A negligence lawsuit against an air traffic controller will usually involve a defense on the part of the controller that a pilot was responsible for the accident. The pilot has primary responsibility for the safety of his or her aircraft and passengers. The controller cannot relieve the pilot of that responsibility. However, the controller also has a duty of care to the pilot. If the controller breaches that duty of care, the controller may be liable for negligence.

If an air traffic controller is deemed to be negligent in his or her duties, the federal government may be subject to a lawsuit under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Because the federal government is the licensing authority for the controller, it may be liable for the negligence of the controller under the doctrine of respondeat superior. This doctrine means that a master or an employer is responsible for the negligence of its servant or employee when the servant or the employee is acting within the scope of his or her employment or duties.


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