The Odd Case of Liability and Small Airplanes


Back in 1994, Congress passed the General Aviation Revitalization Act. Under this law, small airplane manufacturers were no longer liable for accidents in planes more than 18 years old. So how did that affect the behavior of pilots? Alex Tabarrok has a new paper out that looks into this:

Our estimates show that the end of manufacturers’ liability for aircraft was associated with a significant (on the order of 13.6 percent) reduction in the probability of an accident. The evidence suggests that modest decreases in the amount and nature of flying were largely responsible. After GARA, for example, aircraft owners and pilots retired older aircraft, took fewer night flights, and invested more in a variety of safety procedures and precautions, such as wearing seat belts and filing flight plans. Minor and major accidents not involving mechanical failure—those more likely to be under the control of the pilot—declined notably.After GARA, for example, aircraft owners and pilots retired older aircraft, took fewer night flights, and invested more in a variety of safety procedures and precautions, such as wearing seat belts and filing flight plans. Minor and major accidents not involving mechanical failure—those more likely to be under the control of the pilot—declined notably.

I don’t know anything about this, and I’m not qualified to judge the paper. But if it’s correct, it sure does suggest a counterintuitive view of human nature. At one level, the obvious response is: Hey, incentives matter! Make pilots responsible for their own behavior, and they become more careful. What’s so counterintuitive about that? But at a deeper level, think about what this implies. We’re supposed to believe that once the ability to sue over an (extremely unlikely) accident was taken away, pilots actively decided to fly less, wear seat belts more, and replace their old equipment. Really? The prospect of dying didn’t do the trick, but the prospect of not being able to sue did? This really doesn’t fit my mental model of human behavior. That’s especially true given this comment from Alistair Cunningham:

If you look back at the lawsuits that did take place, they were rarely pilots suing, they were the families of deceased pilots egged on by what almost every pilot I’ve ever met would consider as parasitic lawyers. They tended to be awarded large payouts by sympathetic juries who saw only a poor grieving family and a rich distant corporation, and who didn’t understand that the overwhelming majority of general aviation accidents are the pilot’s fault.

If that’s the case, then liability would be expected to have no effect at all on pilots themselves.

I’m not really trying to take sides here. Like I said, I’m not qualified to judge the paper (which I haven’t read). But I would say that if this conclusion holds up, we should see similar behavior in lots of other areas, with legislative changes that affect remote consequences having significant and measurable effects on immediate behavior. Do we?

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.