By Arnold Agaba
On Thursday January 03, 2019, morning, Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET338 originating from Addis Ababa overshot the runway and decelerated into the stopway as it landed at Entebbe International Airport.
The incident paralyzed air travel for nearly 10 hours mainly affecting incoming red-eye and early morning flights. Whereas all 139 passengers and crew were safely deplaned certain key newsrooms broadcast headlines and media reports erroneously stating that the ET338 had been involved in an “accident”.
The term accident is a potent term whose proclamation triggers significant implications for the airline affected and for the aviation industry in which the affected airline operates. Therefore, the term accident be only be used deliberately when commenting on incidents in commercial aviation.
An accident is any unusual event which causes death or bodily injury to the passenger of an aircraft or the loss or damage of baggage or cargo. For an accident to occur, the death or injury of the passenger must be sustained while on board the aircraft or in the course of embarking or disembarking the aircraft.
In the case of luggage or cargo the damage must occur during the period when the airline is placed in charge of the luggage of cargo. When an accident occurs, an airline can be compelled to compensate the owner of the damaged luggage or cargo or, the injured passenger or their family (in the case of death).
In international commercial aviation, not every incident is an accident and not every injury attracts compensation from the airline. Where the injury to the passenger is not physical for instance, in case of emotional distress, the airline is not liable to compensate the passenger.
Although the brain is a physical part of the body, the international aviation law community has maintained that emotional injury absent physical harm should not attract compensation from the airline.
In the case of ET388, any passenger who was frightened by the incident but was not physically injured or any family member who heard of the incident and was outraged by it cannot be compensated for their troubles.
Suffice it to say, some airlines involved in such an incident may choose to ‘comfort’ their passengers by offering some form of reparation not as an act for atonement but purely as a business practice to preserve their brand. Given that none of the ET338 passengers was physically injured, the incident does not amount to an accident and no therefore compensation can be given.
Air transport is a vital tool for developing nations especially land locked countries such as Uganda. Air transport is the only efficient and effective way to dispatch agricultural and industrial products to lucrative markets around the world while safely and conveniently delivering tourists and attracting potential business community into Uganda.
However, airline industries and airlines of developing countries carry a fragile brand which can quickly succumb to an onslaught of negative media reports.
Aviation is a highly visible and fragile industry vulnerable to any adverse activity including imprecise media reports.
Since brand loyalty among airline passengers is fickle, inexact media reports can harm the reputation of an airline or that of the aviation industry in the eyes of potential users and investors.
As government’s efforts to revamp Uganda’s aviation sector come to fruition, the media must perform their civic contribution to the nation’s economic development agenda by insulating the fledging air transport industry from such harmful media reports through cautious headlining especially where some industry terms are esoteric.
The writer is a scholar at McGill University’s Institute of Air and Space Law.