Reports have emerged from the UK that a British Airways A320 was struck by a drone on its approach to Heathrow Airport on 17 April 2016.  The flight from Geneva carrying 132 passengers and 5 crew was reportedly hit by the drone at an altitude of around 580m whilst flying over Richmond Park.  Fortunately the captain landed the plane safely, and no passengers were injured.

Whilst this appears to be the first incident of its kind in the UK, drones interfering with commercial aircraft is becoming a worldwide problem.  For example, only last month Air France reported a near miss incident where the captain of a A320 had to take evasive action to avoid hitting a drone as he came to land in Paris.

The consequences of a drone striking an aircraft’s windscreen or engine are unthinkable.  This leads to an important question – who is responsible to compensate injured passengers in the worst case scenario of a drone causing an air crash?

Under Australian legislation for both domestic and international flights, an air carrier is responsible to pay compensation to passengers up to a certain monetary limit for injuries caused by an accident whilst on board an aircraft.  This is a strict obligation without the passenger having to prove negligence by the airline.  This means that in situations where a drone is the cause of an air crash and the commercial airline pilot was not negligent in failing to avoid the collision, the commercial airline would still be obliged to pay compensation for the passengers injuries up to a certain monetary threshold which varies depending on whether it was an international or domestic flight.

However, the monetary threshold has limits and is unlikely to adequately compensate a passenger who sustains catastrophic injuries in an air crash, such as a brain injury or spinal injury.  In these situations, for a passenger to recover compensation beyond the strict liability threshold, it is necessary to either establish negligence against the air carrier, or bring the claim against the owner or operator of the drone.  However given that there is no requirement to register or insure drones in Australia, the latter cause of action would almost certainly be fruitless.  As drones become increasingly popular, surely it is therefore time to reconsider whether Australia’s aviation compensation legislation meets modern day needs?

Written by Victoria Roy.

Victoria Roy is an Associate at Stacks Goudkamp. Victoria specialises in bringing personal injury claims for people who have been injured on aircraft, cruise ships and overseas in Stacks Goudkamp’s Travel Law Department. Victoria recently presented at Sydney’s AeroPodium aviation law conference which focused on the liability and regulation of drones.