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Aircraft design defects - the standards that matter most

If the skies could speak, they might reveal a galaxy of secrets from aviation history. From the earliest design flaws in the Christmas Bullet - an early 1900's plane intended to have flapping wings - to the malfunctions engineers say caused recent engine failures in Boeing aircraft, structural defects create serious problems for the airline industry. Fatal plane crashes in New York and around the world leave family members to question who has the final say when design defects have catastrophic outcomes.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has similar questions, not only when an aircraft goes down but also anytime members and their colleagues take one up. In 2016, the AOPA made headlines when asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case involving aviation products liability.

The ruling its members hoped to appeal was that "the Federal Aviation Administration's certification and approval of the engine [that failed] did not eliminate the possibility of a design defect." In other words, they wanted the U.S. Supreme Court to consider whether plane manufacturers that met the FAA's standards for safety could still be liable for defects that cause crashes.

In addition, the AOPA notes, it hoped the federal court would rule on whether aircraft manufacturers not only have to answer to the FAA but to state design standards, a lower-court ruling AOPA members say is confusing. They expressed a strong belief the FAA's standards alone should be enough to prevent aircraft design defects and hoped the U.S. Supreme Court might agree.

In 2017, Aviation International News Online reported that the U.S. Supreme Court did not hear the appeal, leaving the aviation industry caught between state standards and those of the FAA. Ultimately, Congress may end up adding to the conversation with further protections in the form of federal law. 

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