We were recently made aware of an article which brought into focus where air travel passengers stand with regard to sustaining an injury whilst on a plane. We’re not referring necessarily to the far more sinister acts of terrorism, rather if someone – as was the case in this particular news piece – had been involved in a freak accident immediately prior to take-off or during a flight.

To afford you the relevant back story in this instance, a British Airways passenger was taken to hospital in the direct aftermath of a bag falling from an overhead locker and striking the unfortunate victim on the head, causing the individual to temporarily lose consciousness. The airliner at the time hadn’t embarked on its scheduled journey and was awaiting take-off at London’s Heathrow Airport, destined to fly to Bangkok. According to the story, the injured passenger was quickly attended to by paramedics at the scene, before being transferred to a local hospital for further treatment.

So, with such a scenario panning out – as unpredicted as it was – it would be interesting to learn just what procedures are in place, from a travel insurance perspective, as a means of protective response to freakish accidents of this nature.

A little bit of research – due to such examples are largely few and far between - tells us that accidents aboard an aircraft are not typically subject to the usual rules of the UK, so to speak. Roughly translating that if the flight is of an international bounds (and therefore not an internal one) then any accidents tend to be governed by an over-riding protocol called the Montreal Convention.

This relatively new treaty was adopted by a number of countries back in 1999, and as part of its mandate covers various topics regarding air travel, along with insurance liability. Concentrating on personal injuries potentially suffered by passengers, and Article 17 of the Montreal Convention addresses the liability issue. Tasked with setting in stone new globally-acknowledged rules on liability in the event of accidents taking place in international air transport, the treaty essentially offers an expansive breakdown of unlimited liability features and stipulations should someone become injured (or indeed, pass away).

Effectively, a carrier (airline) is deemed ultimately liable for any damage sustained in the case of bodily injury (or death) to a passenger, upon the condition that the accident which led to the injury/demise to/of the individual claimant took place on board the aircraft, or in the course of any of the operations relating to embarking/disembarking.

Give or take a few words, this is the existing, and official line on the subject of culpability, which pretty much hands responsibility for all-enveloping insurance protection to the airline operator; in as much as it’s a carrier’s fundamental legal obligation to actively ensure that its insurance policies pertaining to passenger safety/liability is of a suitable level, so that all persons feasibly entitled to financial compensation receive the full sum to which they’d be entitled if a situation unfolded whereby a claim for personal injury was filed; and moreover in accordance with the aforementioned Montreal Convention.

Further to this, we have discovered that all air carriers which signed up to this treaty are required to provide each passenger with written documentation pertaining to adherence to the following rules and regulations.

For starters it must disclose the ‘applicable limit’ for the flight in question (on the carrier’s liability) in respect of injury or death occurring, whilst also (and equally important for non-injured parties) stating the ‘applicable limit’ for the flight in question to cover lost, damaged or destroyed baggage and ‘damage occasioned by delay’, by the same token.

Where the Montreal Convention differs over understood and accepted insurance liability/implied negligence, is that unlike in other walks of life it’s NOT necessary to prove either negligence or breach of statutory duty on the part of the defendant, only to provide evidence that the claimant had ‘an accident which caused injury’ whilst on board an aircraft; and irrespective of whether or not it was stationary or in the air at the time of the injury being sustained.

Beneath is the air carrier’s actual bullet-pointed liability (in respect of passengers and their baggage):

    • Compensation - In the event of injury (or death), no financial limit is set. However, there is a first tier of strict carrier liability for damages of up to 100,000 SDRs (special drawing rights, as defined by the International Monetary Fund, i.e. around 135,000 Euros), in respect of which the air carrier cannot contest claims for compensation. Any sum over that amount would trigger a second tier of liability, again based on the presumed fault of the carrier, which the latter may avoid only by proving that it was not at fault (the burden of proof is on the carrier)
    • Advance payments - The air carrier must make an advance payment to cover immediate economic needs, with 15 days from the identification of the person entitled to compensation. In the event of death, this advance payment must be no less than 16,000 SDRs
    • Passenger delays - The air carrier is liable (unless it took all reasonable measures and can prove this) and must pay passengers up to 4,150 SDRs in the event of a delay. Liability for baggage delay is limited to 1,000 SDRs
    • Destroyed, lost or damaged baggage - In the event of damage, delay, loss or destruction of baggage, the passenger concerned must complain to the air carrier in writing 

NOTE: Any claims pursued under the Montreal Convention directives MUST be actioned within 2 years of the personal injury having occurred, and NOT 3 years as is typically the case with accidents.

Are there any specialist travel insurance policies that have dedicated flight accident cover?

Yes, there are a number of extra-curricular packages which are designed to afford travellers that additional peace of mind that perhaps the thought of carrier liability compensation alone doesn’t. Admittedly these type of flight accident policies are routinely available in America yet not as widely known or signed up to here in the UK or mainland Europe, yet having said that specialist travel insurance providers will be in a position to cater for such needs.

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Why would I choose to arrange additional flight insurance if the airline’s own liability covers me?

Simply because of the timing. Any ensuing investigations being carried out in the aftermath of any aviation incident means that – although the airline will eventually be responsible for paying-out to an injured party – it’s more often than not impossible to gauge a final amount and when, in terms of a timeline, the recipient is likely to receive any monies owed. With this in mind a flight accident cover will provide more immediate forms of compensation.

What does a flight accident policy actually cover?

Typically such a package pays-out in the event of the claimant suffering the loss of a limb (or tragically, the policyholder’s life) while boarding, travelling or disembarking from an airline during a covered trip; which manifests as one lump sum benefit, recompensing the beneficiary up to the pre-agreed policy limit.

Other instances in which such a specialist policy pays out are as follows;

    • The policyholder’s demise (as alluded to above)
    • Total permanent loss of sight in one (or both) eye(s)
    • Permanent loss of one (or both) of your hands (or feet) as aforementioned 

Any claim compensation will be subject to terms and conditions being met, which are listed beneath;

    • You must be a ticketed passenger on a regularly scheduled flight
    • The accident must happen while you are boarding, traveling in, or disembarking from the airplane
    • The loss must be a direct result of an accident and must occur within a certain number of days (usually 180-365) of the accident 

Looking into the pay-outs offered by a flight accident insurance plan still further, and we have found that death benefits are paid at 100% of the policy limits on average, while dismemberment benefits are settled at a typical rate of some 50% (for the 1 loss), rising to 100% when talking into consideration multiple limb loss; however individual policy agreements will vary so it’s always imperative to refer to benefit schedules listed in the policy documentation for exacting details.

Also worth being aware that flight accident coverage historically does NOT provide for emergency medical evacuations or repatriation of the insured (or their remains, worst case scenario), while this type of defined cover is a separate entity from (and ergo in addition to) any financial reimbursement which comes the claimant/policyholder’s way courtesy of the airline/official carrier at a later juncture in proceedings.

What’s more, flight accident coverage is offered in both travel medical and package plans, and in some cases is represented as an optional upgrade that can be added to an original/existing travel policy

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