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Aviation Accidents: Air Traffic Controller Error

Updated March 4, 2020 | By Wilson Kehoe Winingham staff

Air traffic controllers are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to perform vital work for the aviation industry: They control flight paths, communicate with pilots, respond to in-air emergencies, and prevent aircraft collisions. Using radar and other technology, controllers keep track of the location of each and every aircraft in the sky.

It’s clear to see how vital the work of air traffic controllers is for pilots and passengers alike. Unfortunately, if they act negligently, catastrophic accidents can happen. Even the slightest error can result in disaster.

Air Traffic Controller Negligence

In the event of an unexpected event—bad weather, emergency landing, unscheduled traffic, etc.—air traffic controllers have a duty to properly respond and communicate with pilots to help minimize the risk of accident or injury. Small aircraft especially rely on controllers because their aircraft lack many of the instruments that commercial planes have, leaving them to detect hazards by visuals only.

One of the most common causes of aviation accidents is human error, including pilot or flight crew error as well as aircraft maintenance error. Depending on the circumstances of the accident, another liable party might be the air traffic controller.

Since air traffic controllers are governed by the FAA, a violation of federal regulations could help build a case for negligence.

Types of Air Traffic Controller Errors

There are various types of errors air traffic controllers could commit that fall under the category of negligence.

Improper Staffing, Management, and Training

Staffing shortages lead to air traffic controllers taking extra and longer shifts, and poor staff training can result in controllers unprepared for an emergency.


Exhaustion is a significant issue for air traffic controllers. Their work is often performed under extremely stressful conditions and during long shifts. Fatigue causes a slow response time, contributes to poor decision-making, and dulls concentration.

Failure to Properly Communicate with Pilots

Messages between air traffic controllers and pilots should be short, simple, and to the point. There should be no ambiguity. Controllers also need to refrain from using slang non-standard terminology to avoid confusion.

Mismanagement of Air Traffic and Potential Hazards

Air traffic controllers have a duty to warn pilots of known hazards—dangerous weather, nearby aircraft, power lines, and unclear runways, for example. Improper management of air traffic or a failure to promptly respond to a developing emergency could result in chaos.

Contact an Aviation Accident Attorney Today

Two of the attorneys at WKW are licensed pilots. Both pilots have flight experience in Boeing 727s and private aircrafts as well as commercial licenses, flight engineer certificates, and instrument and multi-engine aircraft ratings.

If you or a loved one have been injured as a result of an aviation accident, contact the Indianapolis Aviation Accident Attorneys of Wilson Kehoe Winingham. The lawyers at WKW can help you with the next steps in pursuing an aviation accident case. Call 317.920.6400 or fill out an online contact form for a free, no-obligation case evaluation.

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