It’s almost like a word-association game when we think about airplane accidents. When you hear “aircraft accident”, it’s almost reflexive to respond, “pilot error”.
But is that always the case? Or are other, less commonly thought of sources more likely to be at the root of such mishaps? According to information from the the Federal Aviation Administration, which constantly gathers and analyzes information connected to aviation accidents in Texas and across the nation, there are in fact several common ways in which such accidents can originate.
Consider, for example, problems within an organization, such as an airline, that can lead to failures affecting multiple aircraft. Many times these arise from failures of communication within the company, particularly with respect to dissemination of safety-related information. Sometimes these failures may not by themselves cause an accident, but when combined with another factor, such as human error (see below), they can lead to unintended and terrible consequences. “Unintended effects” is common enough that the FAA identifies it as a distinct cause of aircraft accidents.
Or how about human errors other than pilot error? According to the FAA, aircraft manufacturers can be vulnerable to flawed assumptions about how certain aircraft systems or components will perform, and when these expectations do not reflect themselves in actual use the result can be disastrous. Other human errors can take place in connection with aircraft design, maintenance or operation. Overall, human errors (including pilot errors) still represent the single greatest source of aircraft accidents.
Most of the time aviation accidents occur in the same manner as a “binary munition”: individual factors can be harmless by themselves, but when they occur in combination with other factors the net effect can lead to failures that are harmful if not lethal. This is why, when we consider the cause of such an accident from a legal point of view, it is important to keep an open mind about the multiple potential causes before drawing conclusions as to potential individual or organizational liability.