Students who are earning a Bachelor’s degree in Aeronautics or a similar aviation-related degree might be surprised to find that a course in aviation law is required to complete their BS. Isn’t that just for lawyers or law school students?
The longer a student flies, the more he or she understands the importance of having at least some knowledge of aviation law. The fact that the bulk of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s Knowledge Test, which is required of one to pass for rating and certificates, should identify that a basic understanding of legal procedures and laws is vital for any pilot. When a college or university stipulates successful completion of an aviation law course as part of a degree program, administrators are signaling that they want to produce well-educated, aware pilots who try to know as much as they can about operating successfully as an aviator.
What Aviation Law Affects
The short answer is: Everything. Aviation law touches every possible aspect of the field, from how close to sunset a non-instrument rated pilots may make a landing, to how many air traffic controllers must work in a tower at a certain time of day. On the commercial and security side, the rules of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is a major factor of the flying experience of airline passengers.
Aviation law does not just affect pilots and airports. It covers cargo transport, passenger behavior, business regulation, and the structure of airlines and charters. This is a particularly interesting period for these laws; as space travel becomes more commercialized and “orbit tourism” edges into the marketplace, the few laws regulating activity outside the atmosphere of Earth are based on the understanding and precedence of aviation law.
Internationally, when countries sharing a border need to work together or come to agreement about use of airspace or airports, they tend to operate through ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization. ICAO is an agency of the United Nations. When military aircraft from different nations must work together or discuss mobilization, the affected governments or armed forces usually work directly with one another.
Where Does Aviation Law Come From?
In the United States, most of aviation law is promulgated by the FAA rather than bills from Congress or executive actions by the President. The FAA creates laws by entering them into the Federal Register under its authorization as part of the Department of Transportation. These laws then become part of the Code of Federal Regulations.
Everyone in aviation, from flight attendants to ramp crews to dispatchers, is responsible for understanding and complying with these regulations. The aviation community receives regular updates from the FAA about the latest rules and notices. Since these update on an almost daily basis, it is important to keep track of proposed amendments as well as final rulings, airworthiness directives and changes in airspace classification. All of these can affect the daily life of a pilot, air traffic controller, or airport administrator.
Most states look to the federal level for rulings on aviation regulation; what the FAA decrees carries the force of federal law. When states, counties, or cities are involved in aviation law, it is typically in matters of:
- Zoning for airports
- Rules for noise ordnances
- Tax issues regarding manufacturers
Where drones are concerned, national parks, areas under city jurisdiction, and people operating on tribal lands all contribute to rules affecting where and how high they may fly.
Therefore, understanding the process of these laws is key for anyone in the aviation industry, not just lawyers and members of the FAA. By learning how it comes to be and how it is shaped, those working on an aviation degree can become a better-informed and active member of the industry.
Aviation Incidents Can Present Unusual Legal Issues
One of the reasons why general aviation tends to be a costly enterprise is that aviation insurance is expensive. Aviation insurance is needed for pilots, aircraft manufacturers, mechanics, certified flight instructors, airlines, charter operators, air show exhibitions, banner towing companies, airports, hangar owners, airplane ownership groups, and many more circumstances. Since the aviation industry is heavily regulated and safety-driven, legal entanglements can quickly arise.
The issue at hand is usually a matter of who or what caused the crash (liability) and who is responsible for paying for the damages (liability.) However, this is often a tricky issue in aviation, since nearly every major accident follows an “accident chain” in which several causes combine to produce the conditions for the incident. Rarely are accidents a simple matter of negligence or one cause. Liability investigations may rely heavily on the findings of the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, which operates independently of the FAA and the Department of Transportation. Such incidents are usually why downed airplanes are major news stories—they are rare, investigations can take time, and court cases are usually involved. These can keep such incidents in the news for quite some time.
Becoming a Well-Rounded Member of the Aviation Industry
Aviation law is a terrific career field for those who are interested in aviation but prefer to work in regulation or as lawyers. For pilots, flight dispatchers, and those in aviation business, a basic knowledge of aviation law is simply responsible. Even airline passengers and those working in airport security should be aware of the impact of the laws on their job duties and flying experiences.
Comprehending what such laws mean and what they affect, might at first seem an odd part of the knowledge requirements for a pilot, but not every industry is so closely regulated as aviation. When students working on an aviation degree know not only what the law is, but how it came to be, they can feel more at peace in integrating it into their checklists and classroom sessions.
Tamu Smith-Kohls serves as the Vice President of Enrollment Management and Marketing for California Aeronautical University. She has worked in the aviation industry in various roles for 24 years. As a United States Air Force retired veteran, she has a unique appreciation for the aviation industry. Tamu has served in Information Systems as a Network Administrator, Aerospace Flight Medicine as a Health Services Manager, and Air Force Recruitment and Marketing. She holds an undergraduate degree in Psychology; a Master’s in Business Administration and is a Certified Neuro Linguistic Practitioner. Her passion is motivating, training, coaching and serving others to reach their best potential.