Aviation Law

Ivan Trump


Aviation Law, the body of international and domestic law governing various aspects of civil aviation. Agreements concerning activities in space have also been established.

Ivan Trump



The importance of modern aviation was recognized during World War II when a conference was convened in Chicago in 1944 to discuss regulation of post-war international civil aviation. The resulting Chicago Convention of 1944 codified public international aviation law. Contracting nations adopted international regulations, standards, and procedures for the use of communication systems and air navigation aids; for airport characteristics; for rules of the air and air traffic control; for airworthiness of aircraft; for licensing of operating and mechanical personnel; for aeronautical maps and charts; for logbooks; and for measures to facilitate air navigation.

The established principle that every nation has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory was reaffirmed. Every civil aircraft in international aviation must be registered, carry the nationality of the country of registration, and bear appropriate identification markings. The convention granted transit rights (that is, the right to fly over another nation’s territory and the right to land there for non-traffic purposes, such as refuelling) and permitted non-scheduled, charter, and private flights.

A similar arrangement in traffic rights (to pick up and set down passengers, cargo, and mail) was not adopted, and bilateral negotiations had to be carried out to effect such arrangements. The American principle of “Freedom of the Air” and the British principle of “Order in the Air” was reconciled in 1946 in Bermuda at a meeting between the United States and Britain. Subsequent bilateral agreements are based on the so-called Bermuda Principles covering the regulation of routes, capacity, and tariff.

Another outcome of the Chicago conference was the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which was formally established in 1947 as an agency of the United Nations (UN) to foster development and promote cooperation in international civil aviation. The organization has a legal committee that is responsible for producing treaties, conventions, and protocols in those areas of aviation in which uniformity is desirable.

A basic agreement in international aviation law was the Warsaw Convention of 1929. This convention introduced the presumption that where a passenger suffered personal injury or death or goods were damaged, in the course of international transfer, the carrier would be liable. This liability was, however, limited: liability for death or personal injury to a passenger was limited to approximately US$8,300. The Hague Protocol was adopted in 1965. Constituting a series of amendments to the Warsaw Convention, the protocol doubled the liability limit.

In 1963 the ICAO’s legal committee produced the Tokyo Convention, dealing with offences committed on board aircraft. The many aircraft hijackings since 1968 brought pressure to ratify the treaty, and in May 1969 the US Senate consented to the convention’s ratification. More stringent security measures for international flights were called for in an amendment to the Chicago Convention adopted by the ICAO council in 1985.


All countries have aviation legislation designed to conform to the international rules. In Britain, aviation is regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority, an independent body. It is responsible for licensing airline operators and crews, for navigation and air traffic control systems, and for supervising the operation of aerodromes. It has wide powers, principally by its licensing function, to enforce the safety of air travel in and from Britain. The most important aerodromes are customs and excise airports, which receive all international flights; the largest of these are now administered directly by a limited company.


The flights of unmanned and manned space vehicles that began in 1957 highlighted the necessity for some legal recognition of spacecraft and activities in space. The UN appointed a Committee for Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 1959. Its 1967 Outer Space Treaty codified accepted principles of international law relating to outer space and established the proposition that outer space is not subject to national appropriation and is to be used only for peaceful purposes—a proposition disturbed in the early 1980s by a proposal from the then American president Ronald Reagan for a space-based defence system (see Strategic Defense Initiative). A 1968 treaty dealt with astronaut rescue and return and the retrieval of objects launched into space. It also provided for the safe and prompt return to the launching state of any personnel of a spacecraft, any space object, or any component part that lands in the territory of another contracting state as a result of an accident or other emergencies.

In 1971 the UN enacted a space liability treaty providing that the launching country would be absolutely liable to pay compensation for loss of life, injury, or damage to property resulting from objects launched into space by that country. A 1974 treaty required registration of space objects with the UN. A 1979 treaty dealing with commercial exploitation of the Moon, however, aroused controversy; several nations, including the United States, have not yet ratified it. The United States has also made several bilateral arrangements concerning space allocations for communications satellites and the use of data from other applications satellites.

Reviewed By:
Simon Levene