Generally, an aircraft is a vehicle that is used for flying. Pursuant to 49 USCS § 40102 (a) (6) ‘aircraft’ means any contrivance invented, used, designed to navigate, or fly in the air. An aircraft is in a class by itself and it has usually been held that in the absence of any express provision on the subject, an aircraft will not fall within the terms vehicle, motor vehicle, or vessel. Further, ‘air commerce’ means foreign air commerce, interstate air commerce, the transportation of mail by aircraft, the operation of aircraft within the limits of a federal airway, or the operation of aircraft that directly affects, or may endanger safety in foreign or interstate air commerce[i].
Depending upon the purpose that an aircraft serves, an aircraft is designated as public aircraft, civil aircraft, or civil aircraft of the U.S. Public aircraft means any of the following[ii]:
- an aircraft used only for the U.S. government;
- an aircraft owned by the U.S. government and operated by any person for purposes related to crew training, equipment development, or demonstration;
- an aircraft owned and operated by the government of a state, the District of Columbia, or a territory or possession of the U.S. or a political subdivision of one of these governments;
- an aircraft exclusively leased for at least 90 continuous days by the government of a state, the District of Columbia, or a territory or possession of the U.S. or a political subdivision of one of these governments; and
- an aircraft owned or operated by the armed forces or chartered to provide transportation or other commercial air service to the armed forces under the conditions specified by statute.
In the preceding sentence, the term ‘other commercial air service’ means an aircraft operation:
- that is within the U.S. territorial airspace;
- that the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) determines as available for compensation or hire to the public; and
- that must comply with all applicable civil aircraft rules under the Code of Federal Regulations.
However, a public aircraft does not include a civil aircraft. Pursuant to 49 USCS § 40102 (a) (16) ‘civil aircraft’ means an aircraft except a public aircraft. And ‘civil aircraft of the U.S.’ means an aircraft registered as provided in the Federal Aviation Act[iii].
Except for the exceptions provided in the statute[iv], in order to operate an aircraft in the U.S., a person must register an aircraft under the Federal Aviation Act. The administrator of FAA is the authority to register an aircraft. Upon registration, the administrator of the FAA will issue a certificate of registration to the aircraft owner. The administrator of the FAA will suspend or revoke the certificate of registration if the aircraft no longer meets the registration requirements[v].
However, in order to operate a civil aircraft in air commerce in the U.S., the owner of an aircraft must also possess an airworthiness certificate[vi]. To obtain an airworthiness certificate, the registered owner of an aircraft must make an application to the administrator of the FAA . The administrator of the FAA will issue an airworthiness certificate if the administrator finds that the aircraft conforms to its type certificate and after inspection is in condition for safe operation[vii].
An aircraft that is registered according to the provision of the statute can be leased or bailed. The law that applies with regard to the bailment or lease of an aircraft is the same as that related to the bailment or lease of the personal property. Accordingly, a bailor of an aircraft will be liable to an injured third person if[viii]:
- the bailor supplied the aircraft in question;
- the aircraft was defective at the time it was supplied;
- the defect could have been discovered by a reasonable inspection, when inspection is required; and
- the defect was the proximate cause of the injury.
[i] 49 USCS § 40102 (a)(3).
[ii] 49 USCS § 40102(a)(41).
[iii] 49 USCS § 40102(a)(17).
[iv] 49 USCS § 44101.
[v] 49 USCS § 44105.
[vi] 49 USCS § 44711(a)(1).
[vii] 49 USCS § 44704(a)(1).
[viii] Brooks v. Essex Crane Rental Corp., 233 Ill. App. 3d 736 (Ill. App. Ct. 4th Dist. 1992).