Journal of Air Law and Commerce


If you are injured in an aviation disaster or lose a loved one in a plane crash, may you seek recovery under state law? Do federal regulations provide adequate opportunities to compensate aviation crash victims? These are questions few people think to ask themselves. A more common query is what entity regulates the more than 16 million flights that occur yearly in the U.S., and how do you know whether the aircraft you fly on are safe?

The tragic Boeing 737 MAX crashes initiated a federal oversight investigation into the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Industry whistleblowers revealed severe lapses in the FAA’s aircraft certification regime and a culture that promoted unsafe practices in aircraft design and manufacturing. Despite crucial reforms, the ability of uniform federal standards to protect aviation consumers is under fire.

In a majority of U.S. jurisdictions, the Federal Aviation Act and associated federal regulations preempt all state law claims in aviation safety cases. The effect of this approach—few plaintiffs recover in aviation product liability suits, and the families of aviation crash victims go uncompensated. However, in Sikkelee v. Precision Airmotive Corp., the Third Circuit offered a new approach that advocates for field preemption for in-air operations claims but allows recovery under state law for aviation product liability cases. This approach adequately compensates aviation crash victims without undermining the FAA’s extensive and effective in-air regulatory scheme.

This Comment addresses recent reforms to the FAA’s aircraft certification program and the ongoing circuit split regarding federal preemption of aviation safety claims. Further, this Comment seeks to analyze the fundamental differences between in-air operations regulations and rules governing aircraft design and manufacture to explain why different treatment of these claims is warranted. Ultimately, this Comment advocates for the Sikkelee methodology to provide ample opportunity for plaintiff recovery without unnecessarily undermining FAA regulatory authority.



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