air law

air law


      the body of law directly or indirectly concerned with civil aviation. Aviation in this context extends to both heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air aircraft. Air-cushion vehicles are not regarded as aircraft by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), but the practice of individual states in this regard is not yet settled. The earliest legislation in air law was a 1784 decree of the Paris police forbidding balloon flights without a special permit.

      Because of the essentially international character of aviation, a large part of air law is either international law or international uniform law (rules of national law that have by agreement been made internationally uniform). Insofar as international air law is concerned, it need hardly be mentioned that an international agreement or an amendment thereto is binding only on states that are parties to it.


      A basic principle of international air law is that every state has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace (air space) above its territory, including its territorial sea. At the turn of the 20th century the view that airspace, like the high seas, should be free was sometimes advanced. But the principle of airspace sovereignty was unequivocally affirmed in the Paris Convention on the Regulation of Aerial Navigation (1919) and subsequently by various other multilateral treaties. The principle is restated in the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation (1944). Airspace is now generally accepted as an appurtenance of the subjacent territory and shares the latter's legal status. Thus, under the Geneva Convention on the High Seas (1958) as well as under international customary law, the freedom of the high seas applies to aerial navigation as well as to maritime navigation. Vertically, airspace ends where outer space begins.

      It follows from the principle of airspace sovereignty that every state is entitled to regulate the entry of foreign aircraft into its territory and that persons within its territory are subject to its laws. States normally permit foreign private (i.e., nongovernmental and noncommercial) aircraft to visit or fly through their territory without too much difficulty. Such aircraft registered in states that are parties to the 1944 Chicago Convention are, under the convention, allowed into the territories of all other contracting states without prior diplomatic permission if not engaged in the carriage of passengers, mail, or cargo for reward.

      Commercial air transport is divided into scheduled air services and nonscheduled flights (aviation). Charter flights fall mostly, but not invariably, into the latter category. Under the Chicago Convention, contracting states agree to permit aircraft registered in the other contracting states and engaged in commercial nonscheduled flights to fly into their territory without prior diplomatic permission and, moreover, to pick up and discharge passengers, cargo, and mail, but in practice this provision has become a dead letter.

      For scheduled air services, the privilege of operating commercial services through or into a foreign country was, at the time of the 1944 Chicago conference, split into five so-called freedoms of the air. The first is the privilege of flying across a country nonstop; the second, of flying across with a stop for technical purposes only. These two freedoms are also known as transit rights. A large number of ICAO members are parties to the 1944 International Air Services Transit Agreement, placing these rights on a multilateral basis. The other freedoms of the air are known as traffic rights, referring to passengers, mail, or cargo carried on a commercial service. The third of the five freedoms is the privilege of bringing in and discharging traffic from the home state of the aircraft or airline; the fourth is that of picking up traffic for the home state of the aircraft or airline; the fifth is that of picking up traffic for or discharging traffic from third states in the territory of the state granting the privilege. This fifth freedom is the main bargaining point in the exchange of traffic rights among states. Attempts have been made since 1944 to create other freedoms, but each new freedom usually represents in practice a new restriction.

      Efforts to conclude a widely acceptable multilateral agreement on traffic rights were unsuccessful, and such rights have continued to be handled through bilateral international agreements. These agreements fix the routes to be served, the principles governing the capacity of the agreed services (frequency of the service multiplied by the carrying capacity of the aircraft used), and the procedures for the approval of fares and tariffs by the respective governments. Most agreements require that airlines operating the same routes consult among themselves before submitting their fares to the two governments concerned for approval, and many agreements specify the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an association of airlines, as the organ for such consultations. The right to carry domestic traffic between points within a state is normally reserved to that state's own airlines. A bilateral agreement signed at Bermuda in 1946 between the United Kingdom and the United States set a pattern that has generally been followed, although the formal Bermuda-type agreement is likely to be accompanied by confidential memoranda attaching various restrictions.

Private rights
      The principle of airspace sovereignty in international law is probably well reflected in the maxim, Cujus est solum ejus est usque ad coelum et ad inferos (“he who owns the land owns what is above and below it”). In private law the acceptance of this maxim for a long time posed little difficulty, and the Code Napoléon of 1804 adopted it almost verbatim; in more recent times, however, it is more than questionable whether such a principle can be accepted without qualification. Both the German Civil Code (1896) and the Swiss Civil Code (1907), while recognizing the principle of Cujus est solum, adopted a functional approach, limiting the right of the owner to such a height and such a depth as are necessary for his enjoyment of the land. In common-law countries the courts have arrived at a broadly similar position. In France, too, both the doctrine and the courts have refused to take Cujus est solum literally. In one celebrated case, Clément Bayard v. Coquerel (1913), the Court of Compiègne, lending judicial authority for the first time to the theory of abuse of rights, awarded damages to a plaintiff whose balloon had been destroyed by “spite structures” erected by the defendant on his own land and ordered the offending spikes to be taken down.

      In the course of the 1920s it became clear in most countries, either through judicial decisions or express legislation, that aircraft would be allowed to fly over the private properties of others in normal flight in accordance with aeronautical regulations. This immunity applies only to the mere passage of the aircraft and does not extend to damage caused by it or to other encroachments on the use or enjoyment of the land, such as excessively low flights.

Airports (airport)
      In most countries airports may be privately, municipally, or nationally owned and operated, and the siting of an airport may be subject to town and country planning or zoning regulations. Whether or not the establishment of an airport requires special permission, aircraft leaving or entering a country will normally be required to do so at an airport having customs and immigration facilities. Airports that are open to public use are generally subject to some form of licensing or control in order to ensure compliance with minimum safety standards. Members of ICAO, in order to comply with their obligations under the Chicago Convention, have to make certain that such airports are open to aircraft of all other ICAO members under the same conditions as they are open to national aircraft. Restrictions may also be imposed on the noise level of aircraft taking off or landing, as well as the general level of noise, vibration, smoke, and so forth that may result from the operation of airports. In order to secure safety of flight, restrictions may be imposed on the use of lands adjoining an airport, such as the height of buildings or the planting of trees. Practice varies as to whether such restrictions are regarded as true measures of planning or zoning or as takings of private property for public use, which require the payment of compensation.

      Some legal systems exempt the airport owner, operator, and users from liability for low flights over neighbouring properties, noise, vibration, or other forms of disturbance, provided that all the regulations and conditions laid down for the operation and use of the airport are complied with. In the absence of such immunity, granted by law or obtained privately from adjacent landowners, the owners, operators, and users of airports are basically liable, in much the same way as other occupiers of land, for any substantial impairment of the use or enjoyment of neighbouring lands.


      Among the most important points resolved in the 1919 Paris Convention were that aircraft should have a nationality, that they should have the nationality of the state in which they were registered, and that no aircraft could be validly registered in more than one state. The 1944 Chicago Convention retained these principles. While both conventions preclude dual or multiple registration, the ICAO Council in 1967 recognized the possibility of joint registration of aircraft by a number of states, and even “international registration”—without, however, specifying what the latter meant. The principle that every aircraft, at least every one that flies outside its country of origin, must have a nationality is of cardinal importance in air law, inasmuch as it enables a number of rights and duties to be either directly grafted onto the aircraft or channelled through the aircraft to a variety of persons. At the international level, moreover, it ensures that there will be no aircraft for which there is not a state answerable.

      Under the 1944 Chicago Convention an aircraft, in order to benefit from the privileges conferred by the convention, must comply with its terms. Many of these terms are further elaborated in annexes to the convention. According to Article 20 of the convention, as among the contracting states, “every aircraft engaged in international air navigation shall bear its appropriate nationality and registration marks.” Under Article 31, “every aircraft engaged in international navigation shall be provided with a certificate of airworthiness issued or rendered valid by the State in which it is registered”; in 1960 a number of European countries signed, at Paris, a multilateral agreement relating to Certificates of Airworthiness for Imported Aircraft, which is open to accession by other states, designed to facilitate mutual recognition of certificates of airworthiness for import and export purposes. Under Article 30(a) of the Chicago Convention,

aircraft of [i.e., having the nationality of] each contracting State may, in or over the territory of other contracting States, carry radio transmitting apparatus only if a licence to install and operate such apparatus has been issued by the appropriate authorities of the State in which the aircraft is registered.

      As regards the operating personnel of the aircraft, the Chicago Convention provides that

the pilot of every aircraft and the other members of the operating crew of every aircraft engaged in international navigation shall be provided with certificates of competency and licences issued or rendered valid by the State in which the aircraft is registered.

      When an aircraft registered in one contracting state is in or over the territory of other contracting states,

radio transmitting apparatus may be used only by members of the flight crew who are provided with a special licence for the purpose, issued by the appropriate authorities of the State in which the aircraft is registered.

      In addition, the convention prescribes that

there shall be maintained in respect of every aircraft engaged in international navigation a journey log book in which shall be entered particulars of the aircraft, its crew and of each journey . . . .

      All of the above documents must be carried by “every aircraft of a contracting State, engaged in international navigation,” as well as the appropriate manifests if passengers and cargo are carried.

      The fact that all of these rules concerning the aircraft and its crew are channelled through the state of registry can give rise to problems when an aircraft is leased or chartered for any length of time to operators of a different nationality (“interchange of aircraft”). These problems can sometimes be resolved by a temporary transfer either of de facto control or of registration of the aircraft to the state of the operator.

      The provision and operation of ground and other air navigation facilities, as well as the establishment and enforcement of air navigation rules and air traffic control, are the responsibility of the territorial state. So is investigation of accidents, though among ICAO members, under the Chicago Convention the state of registry

shall be given the opportunity to appoint observers to be present at the inquiry and the State holding the inquiry shall communicate the report and findings in the matter to that State.

      Among ICAO members, over the high seas the Rules of the Air established by ICAO apply. Enforcement rests primarily with the state of registry, which is also responsible for investigating accidents occurring over the high seas. A body known as Eurocontrol, established in 1960 by the Brussels Convention Relating to Co-operation for the Safety of Air Navigation, represents an attempt at international cooperation in air-traffic control by a number of western European states.

      Registration of aircraft for nationality and public-law purposes is to be distinguished from registration for purposes of private law. Some legal systems treat aircraft simply as ordinary movable property. Others require all sales of, and other transactions relating to, aircraft, such as mortgages, to be effected in writing and recorded in a public registry before they may be invoked against third parties. Yet others regard only rights duly recorded as valid. If aircraft are to be used as security for credit or loans, a system of recording of rights with international recognition of the rights so recorded has obvious advantages. To this end, a Convention on the International Recognition of Rights in Aircraft was concluded in Geneva in 1948. Few states accepted it at first, but, with the rising cost of modern aircraft, interest in the convention increased. Its wide acceptance will have the side effect of bringing about much greater uniformity in rules of private law governing rights in aircraft.

Acts and occurrences on board aircraft
Criminal jurisdiction
      Although some systems of national law still adhere to the view that ships and aircraft are part of the territory of the state the nationality of which they possess, this is merely a crude metaphor. In international law, a distinction has to be made between three types of state jurisdiction: territorial jurisdiction over national territory and all persons and things therein; quasi-territorial jurisdiction over national ships and aircraft and all persons and things thereon; and personal jurisdiction over all other nationals and all persons under a state's protection, as well as their property. In case of conflict, territorial jurisdiction overrides quasi-territorial jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction, while quasi-territorial jurisdiction overrides personal jurisdiction.

      For a long time, the failure of states to extend their criminal laws to their aircraft while they were outside national territory posed a serious problem. As long as an aircraft is flying in the national airspace of some state, the law of that state is applicable. When a crime has been committed during an international flight, however, there may be difficulty in pinpointing when and where it occurred and hence in determining the state the law of which has been violated. Unless the criminal law and jurisdiction of the state of registry have been extended to the aircraft during the period it is outside the state of registry, there may be none applicable; over the high seas, for example, there would clearly be a gap in the law. This, together with the realization that with the constant increase in air traffic the incidence of offenses on board aircraft was bound to rise, led to the conclusion in 1963 at Tokyo of the Convention on Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft, obliging the contracting states to extend their criminal law and jurisdiction to aircraft of their registry when they are outside national territory. The convention furthermore gives the aircraft commander power to ensure law and order on board his aircraft and to disembark any offender in any contracting state in which the aircraft lands.

Civil jurisdiction
      In most countries the general civil law applies, except as modified. In the interest of avoiding statelessness, most states confer their nationality on those born on aircraft of their registry; but there is in air law no general principle of the law of the flag (i.e., the law of the state of registry) being applicable to every occurrence on board. There are, however, various international agreements that affect the exercise of civil jurisdiction by states. A few may be mentioned. The most important is doubtless Article 28 of the 1929 Warsaw Convention on International Carriage by Air, as subsequently modified by Article 8 of the 1961 Guadalajara Convention and amplified by Article 12 of the 1971 Guatemala City Protocol. Under Article 28, an action arising from an “international” carriage by air may be brought only before the courts of certain contracting states and no others. The 1933 Rome Convention on Precautionary Arrest of Aircraft, which has not been widely accepted, exempts aircraft actually used on government services or in commercial transport from precautionary attachment. In other cases, the giving of an adequate bond “shall prevent the precautionary attachment or give a right to immediate release.”

      Among ICAO members, Article 27 of the Chicago Convention provides that, subject to certain conditions, aircraft of the contracting states on an international flight are exempt from seizure or detention on patent claims in the territory of other contracting states, without having to deposit a security. Under the 1952 Rome Convention on Surface Damage, in principle, actions may be brought only before the courts of the contracting state in which the damage occurred.

Crimes against aircraft
      The 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas intends to be declaratory of general international law when it defines the offense of piracy principally as

any illegal acts of violence, detention or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private [i.e., nongovernmental and not noncommercial] ship or a private aircraft, and directed: (a) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft; (b) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State.

      The convention defines the effect of piracy under international law as follows:

On the high seas, or in any other place outside the jurisdiction of any State, every State may seize a pirate ship or aircraft, or a ship taken by piracy and under the control of pirates, and arrest the persons and seize the property on board.

      A state, having done so, may decide upon the penalties to be imposed and the fate of the ship, the aircraft, or the property. This definition of piracy deliberately excludes acts committed for political motives, as well as acts confined within a ship or aircraft, such as mutiny or the hijacking of an aircraft by its passengers or crew. Although some states, for example, the United States, have in their own laws categorized hijacking as aircraft piracy, this in itself is unable to bring about the consequences of piracy under international law.

      Unlawful seizure is the legal name that states at the international level have given to aircraft hijacking. Thus, the 1963 Tokyo Convention obliges contracting states to take all appropriate measures to restore control of an aircraft hijacked in flight to its lawful commander, and obliges the state in which the aircraft lands to allow the passengers and crew to continue their journey, and to return the aircraft and its cargo to those lawfully entitled to possession. In response to a wave of hijackings that began in 1968, the 1970 Hague Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft was concluded in an effort to prevent hijackers from finding immunity in any of the contracting states.

      Far more grievous than hijackings as regards the number of persons injured or killed and of aircraft damaged or destroyed have been the many acts of sabotage or violence committed against aircraft and civil aviation installations. This led to the conclusion at Montreal in 1971 of the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Civil Aviation, on roughly the same lines as the 1970 Hague convention dealing with the problem of unlawful seizure.

Goods, passengers, shippers, and other parties
      Problems of liability arising from the international carriage of (carriage of goods) passengers, baggage, and cargo by aircraft are dealt with by the widely accepted Warsaw Convention on International Carriage by Air, which was concluded in 1929, amended in 1955 by the Hague Protocol, supplemented in 1961 by the Guadalajara Convention, and further amended in 1971 by the Guatemala City Protocol. The 1971 protocol was much influenced by the so-called Montreal agreement of 1966, which was an agreement among airlines accepting the terms of the United States government for withdrawing its denunciation of the Warsaw Convention. Not every party of the Warsaw Convention has accepted the 1955 or the 1971 amendment protocol; nor is a party that accepts either protocol required to denounce the treaty which the protocol amends. The result is that there are in fact three separate treaties (Warsaw, Warsaw–Hague, and Warsaw–Hague–Guatemala City) with a number of states being parties to more than one.

      The contracting states to the Warsaw convention seek to reduce and eliminate problems of conflict of laws by agreeing to adopt uniform rules in their internal laws governing the international carriage of persons, baggage, or cargo by aircraft. The qualification “international” has the special meaning attributed to it by the convention and, in order to avoid ambiguity, carriage governed by the Warsaw Convention is often referred to as Warsaw carriage. Some states have extended the rules of the convention to carriage not governed by the convention. The rules established by the convention are mandatory in the sense that the parties to the contract of carriage cannot vary them, especially not to the detriment of the consumer. They are also exclusive in the sense that no additional claims can be brought against the carrier outside the terms of the convention.

      In the event a passenger is injured or dies, or baggage or cargo is damaged or lost during “international” carriage, the convention makes the carrier prima facie liable. In order to avoid liability, the carrier has to prove that he and his servants and agents have not been at fault. His liability may also be excluded in whole or in part if the injured person is wholly or partly to blame for the damage. In return for the presumption of his liability, the carrier is given the benefit of limited liability, a benefit that he forfeits if it is proved that the damage resulted from his willful misconduct or that of his servants and agents. The convention lays down detailed rules on the issuance and contents of the appropriate documents of carriage (passenger ticket, baggage check, and air waybill) and enforces them with the penalty of absolute and unlimited liability.

      For the carriage of passengers, the Guatemala City Protocol further lays down rules on possible supplementary compensation schemes and periodic increases of the liability limit. The rules concerning documents of carriage, which can have important effects on the carrier's liability, were substantially modified at The Hague and again at Guatemala City.

      While aircraft may fly over private lands in normal flight, most national laws protect the landowner against excessively low flights and other undue interference with his possession and use of land, such as the performance of aerobatics and buzzing. In addition, normally, every system of national law allows third parties on the surface (of the Earth) to recover for damage done by an aircraft in flight, or by persons and things in or falling from it, though in some countries there are limits to the amount recoverable. Some national laws base liability on fault. The majority, however, hold the owner or the operator of the aircraft absolutely liable for any damage caused. Insurance against third-party liability is compulsory in many states.

      In 1933 a convention was concluded in Rome on surface damage caused by foreign aircraft. This was supplemented by the 1938 Brussels Insurance Protocol. Both have since been superseded by the 1952 Rome Convention on the same subject. The convention applies only to surface damage caused in a contracting state by aircraft registered in another contracting state. It accepts the principle of absolute liability, subject to the exception of contributory negligence, providing however that

there shall be no right to compensation . . . if the damage results from the mere fact of passage of the aircraft through the airspace in conformity with existing air traffic regulations.

      The convention makes the operator of the aircraft liable. The main raison d'être of the convention is said to be its scheme of compulsory insurance; in return, the liability of the operator is limited according to the weight of the aircraft, unless the damage is caused by a deliberate act of the operator, his servants, or agents, done with intent to cause damage. An unauthorized user of the aircraft also incurs unlimited liability. Actions to recover compensation may be brought only in the state in which the damage occurred. An important element in the convention is the provision that judgments rendered under it are enforceable in all other contracting states. The convention came into force in 1958, but the number of states that have accepted it is not very high. The wording of Article 1(1) of the convention quoted above gives rise to doubt whether damage resulting from sonic booms is covered. In view of the treatment accorded to passengers by the Guatemala City Protocol, a revised convention establishing absolute, unlimited, and adequately secured liability for all damage caused by aircraft to third parties on the surface would seem indicated.

International regulation
      Under the 1919 Paris Convention, an International Commission for Aerial Navigation (ICAN, or CINA) was created with headquarters in Paris. In 1937 an Inter-American Technical Aviation Conference decided on the creation of a Permanent American Aeronautical Commission (CAPA). Both were superseded by the establishment in 1947 of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) under the 1944 Chicago Convention. The Soviet Union joined in 1970, making ICAO membership almost universal.

      ICAO is a specialized agency affiliated to the United Nations, with headquarters in Montreal. It has a plenary Assembly, which holds the budgetary power; a permanent Council elected triennially, which, among other things, adopts the Annexes to the Convention; an Air Navigation Commission; an Air Transport Committee; and a plenary Legal Committee, which discusses matters of air law of common interest to members and prepares draft conventions for their consideration and acceptance.

      One of the most important functions of ICAO is the preparation and periodical revision of international standards and recommended practices relating to civil aviation. It has done much to standardize aeronautical regulations throughout the world. Among other functions of ICAO may be mentioned those in connection with joint support programs among members for financing air navigation facilities and its technical assistance program. The ICAO Council, under the Chicago Convention, may also function as either a conciliation body or a judicial organ in disputes between members.

Bin Cheng

Additional Reading
A comprehensive general work covering both international and English air law is Shawcross and Beaumont on Air Law, 3rd ed. by P.B. Keenan, A. Lester, and P. Martin, 2 vol. (1966), with its supplements. An introductory work for the student is G.A. Seabrooke, Air Law (1964). A.D. McNair, The Law of the Air, 3rd ed. (1964); and P.C. Nathan and A.R. Barrowclough, “Civil Aviation,” in Halsbury's Laws of England, 3rd ed., vol. 5, pp. 1–248 (1953), both deal with the subject from the standpoint of English law. For the United States, see A.J. Mathes and T. Mattern, Manual of Aviation Law (1952), a booklet that commends itself by its scope and brevity. Much more elaborate are F. De Billyou, Air Law, 2nd ed. (1964); and R.W. Fixel, The Law of Aviation (1967). Robert R. Wright, The Law of Airspace (1968), is on private rights and is not limited to air law, while D.H.N. Johnson, Rights in Air Space (1965), deals primarily with international law and is especially useful for its treatment of the historical evolution of the subject and the rules of air warfare. On the Chicago Convention, on ICAO, and on multilateral and bilateral agreements governing the operation of international nonscheduled flights and scheduled air services, see B. Cheng. The Law of International Air Transport (1962). H. Drion, Limitation of Liabilities in International Air Law (1954), a standard work, deals with both the Warsaw Convention and the Rome Convention. B. Cheng, “The Law of ‘International' and ‘Non-international' Carriage by Air,” The Law Society's Gazette (1963–64), covers the Warsaw Convention, the Hague Protocol, and the Guadalajara Convention. A.F. Lowenfeld and A.I. Mendelsohn, “The United States and the Warsaw Convention,” Harvard Law Review, 80:497–602 (1967), is a more or less official apologia for absolute liability and the Montreal agreement. These were also the subject of two symposia: Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society (1967); and “Symposium on the Warsaw Convention as Modified by the Montreal Agreement,” Journal of Air Law and Commerce, 33:519–726 (1967). T. Buergenthal, Law-Making in the International Civil Aviation Organization (1969); and J. Schenkman, International Civil Aviation Organization (1955), are both works of great scholarly merit. U.S. Library of Congress, Law Library, Air Laws and Treaties of the World, 3 vol. (1965), for the use of the Senate Committee on Commerce, is a mine of information. D.A. Cooper (ed. and trans.), The Air Code of the U.S.S.R. (1966; orig. pub. in Russian, 1961), has useful notes and explanatory comments. See also I.H. Ph. Diederiks-Verschoor, Introduction to Air Law (1983); and Gerard Pucci, Aviation Law, 4th ed. (1981). J. Ray Ferguson, Air Law: A Selected Bibliography of Articles, 1870–1980 (1982), is a useful reference source.

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