Do Lawyers Make Aviation Any Safer? 

The news that some of the passengers who were on board Asiana Flight 214 are taking the first steps to sue Boeing, some of its suppliers and the airline was probably inevitable. It’s hard to imagine any kind of accident or tragedy today that doesn’t result in some sort of lawsuit.

The investigation is just beginning into what caused the Boeing 777 to impact the ground short of the runway at the San Francisco International Airport. But the attorneys at Ribbeck Law Chartered International in Chicago have indicated they already know the reasons for the accident.

According to its website, “Ribbeck Law Chartered International is passionately devoted to improving international passenger safety and seeking justice for aviation tragedy victims and their families.” But there is no information listed as to how the company has improved safety. The firm claims “our cases have changed policies and laws,” but there are no examples. Instead of stating the policies and laws it has changed, the firm only lists “multi-million dollar settlement” next to some of its cases.

The question is who determines who is responsible for improving passenger safety after an accident? Do the airplane makers play a role in how they change designs on an airliner after an accident? Are the investigators who sift through the wreckage, and analyze the data from the flight responsible for providing any of the information needed? What about the airlines and the pilots who are developing new training and operational procedures based on the investigation?

Or is it the lawyers, who days after the accident announce they are seeking justice for an aviation tragedy as the investigation is just beginning?

There is little doubt companies like Boeing and Airbus have passenger safety in mind when they design an airplane. I have no inside information related to what kind of discussion happens within the walls of the manufacturers after one of their airplanes is involved in an accident. But my experience in talking with them outside the direct context of an accident is that they are trying to design an airplane that provides safe transportation for airline passengers.

After nearly 20 years in service and millions of flight hours, the Boeing 777 has been involved in two accidents resulting in a “hull loss,” and Asiana 214 is the only one with fatalities. While something obviously went wrong leading to the crash in San Francisco, it’s a testament to the safety of modern airplanes that there are 288 passengers who survived the accident, 83 of whom are involved with the lawsuit according to firm.

I also have no inside information to what is being said inside the walls of a law office once an accident occurs. There are lawyers out there who believe they are making the world a safer place, and take steps to ensure negligence is kept to a minimum. But if a law firm does not sue the companies involved with an airline accident, is the assumption that no lessons will be learned and no safety improvements would be made once the investigation is complete?

Safety improvements are often implemented after an accident and after a lawsuit. But are they only the result of the lawsuit? Do market forces and the desire to sell aircraft and safe transportation play a role in determining how the industry reacts?

Ribbeck Law Chartered International lists many of the aviation accidents from around the world that it has been involved with over the years on its website, including TWA Flight 800, Swiss Air Flight 111, and American Airlines Flight 587. The firm also prominently displays the logos of many television channels on its homepage, linking to the numerous media appearances it has made while seeking justice for the passengers and families of those involved in the accidents.

A quick look at some of the accidents listed on the firm’s website shows a variety of causes led to the airplane crash cases it has litigated over the years. Without a thorough look through each accident investigation, it’s difficult to determine who provided the necessary information the industry used to prevent a similar accident in the future.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Ribbeck Law Chartered International cites “mechanical malfunction of the auto-throttle” as one of the issues that may have caused the crash of the Boeing 777,leading to the death of three of the passengers on board the airplane. The National Transportation Safety Board said it concluded its work at San Francisco Airport on Monday and is moving on to the next phase of the investigation that will require more interviews, more data and wreckage analysis, and a more in-depth look at the accident itself.

Last week during her daily press conferences, NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman regularly stressed the importance of only reporting what is known, and that there are many questions remaining as to why the airplane’s speed was allowed to drop well below the ideal airspeed for the approach to landing. The auto-throttle system has been a key focal point of the investigation, but it is not yet known whether they were functioning properly or not. Hersman reminded reporters that it typically takes 12 to 18 months to complete its investigation and reports, though if critical safety issues are found in the investigation, they will be released sooner to be implemented across the fleet.

Hersman also explained to reporters some of the design features of the Boeing 777 — including landing gear that is designed to break away cleanly from the wings without rupturing the fuel tanks — that likely limited the amount of damage that occurred. She explained because the gear broke off when it hit the sea wall and did not damage the fuel tanks, there was no fuel fed fire. Hersman said the fire that did eventually spread to the cabin once the passengers were off of the airplane was started by oil dripping on to a hot section of the engine. Its spread was slowed by flame resistant materials used in the airplane according to the NTSB.

There is no doubt that passengers who board an airplane for a flight want to arrive at their destination in good health. I am one of them. I’m just not sure it is the law firms that are responsible for my safe arrival every time I step off of an airplane in one piece.