Florida Air Traffic Control Liability Attorneys

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in May 2014 (the most recent data available) that 22,860 air traffic controllers were employed in the United States who in turn supervise approximately 20 million flight hours per year.  Even the roughest statistics demonstrate that individual controllers are responsible for shepherding many lives and a significant amount of revenue and asset value safely through the skies.

Air Traffic Control

Air traffic control is broken up into four primary areas: the airport traffic control, the terminal radar approach control, air route traffic controllers and flight service stations.  (Since flight service stations are advisory centers, and do not provide traffic or weather separation, they are not discussed here.)

Airport traffic control size varies, depending on the size of the aerodrome.  At smaller airports, there may be only a common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) on which pilots broadcast positions and intentions to self-regulate traffic flow.  Slightly larger airports use a single controller to guide ground taxiing, takeoff and landing clearances and departures and arrivals.  Bigger airports assign an individual controller to each of these stations.  The largest airports break these positions into multiple sectors, as necessary.

Terminal Radar Approach Controllers, or TRACON, work in radar rooms, usually in airport towers. These controllers utilize terminal radar sensors to assist aircraft until they reach the edge of the facility’s airspace, usually about 20 to 50 miles from the airport and up to about 18,000 feet (the base of Class A restricted airspace), before handing it off to an Air Route Traffic Control Center.

The Air Route Traffic Control Center, or ARTC or “Center,” works in 24 control centers across the country; they are not collocated with airports.  These are the controllers who will normally direct aircraft for the majority of the flight.  Controlling traffic at or above 18,000 feet, the typical center has responsibility for more than 100,000 square miles of airspace, generally extending over a number of states.  These controllers give aircraft instructions, air traffic clearances and advisories regarding flight conditions during the en route portion of flights.  Using radar or manual procedures, they keep track of thousands of planes in the sky at any one time.  In the U.S. traffic system, over 90 percent of airspace has real-time radar coverage.  At lower altitudes, controllers plot positions based on pilot reports and provide significantly larger separation than when they can see them on radar.

The first and foremost rule is that the pilot in control bears absolute responsibility for the safe operation of a flight.  This responsibility, and subsequent liability, cannot be delegated.  Air traffic controllers, however, have obligations to provide traffic separation, hazardous weather separation and dangerous flight condition advisories to pilots.  Depending on the type of flight rules in use by the flight crew – visual or instrument – the obligations of a controller vary at different times in a flight.  Duties may be relinquished by a controller in some circumstances, and placed back on the pilot.  Ultimately, controllers are required to exercise “reasonable care” in the execution of their duties.  The allocation of responsibility in an accident investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, who is tasked with that duty, is not necessarily binding in court.  Circuit courts have ruled contrary to these administrative determinations, as a matter of law.

Liability may be pursued under a standard tort theory of negligence.  The government may also be liable under the Federal Tort Claims Act.  Because the federal government is the licensing entity for the controller, it may become liable for the negligence of the employee when that employee is acting within the scope of his employment under the doctrine of respondeat superior.