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Theoretically speaking, let's say we're flying from Portugal to Cuba, on a Chinese-owned airliner. Whilst over the Atlantic, a crime is committed, and we land in the US.

Which country is responsible for prosecution? How is this determined?

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    $\begingroup$ AFAIK it's like ships, and the country of registration is the one initiating the proceedings. But in practice most often the country where the flight is diverting to to offload the troublemakers will be the one handling things in practice. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Mar 17 '14 at 9:41
  • $\begingroup$ @jwenting I've heard a second option, which is that it's the country where the plane last touched ground, but it may be wrong. $\endgroup$ – yo' Mar 17 '14 at 13:01
  • $\begingroup$ I've heard that too, although I can't remember where I heard it. That said, my first instinct was in line with @jwenting. $\endgroup$ – Kobunite Mar 17 '14 at 13:31
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Broadly the legal constructs that apply here are essentially the same as for sailing vessels - in other words when you're outside the jurisdiction of any given nation the laws of the country the vessel is registered in apply, and the captain is the one who makes the decisions.

More specifically once you enter the airspace of a nation that nations laws also apply (the same as crossing the boundary from international waters to the territorial waters of a nation - by entering their territory you're obligated to abide by their laws).


If the above doesn't seem murky enough, it's because it actually gets a lot more complicated than that when you start considering all the laws various countries may pass (and subsequently attempt to enforce).

Consider for example The "Special Aircraft Jurisdiction of the United States" in which the US claims jurisdiction over any aircraft in our airspace, or any aircraft in flight which is intending to land on our soil (as long as they actually do land on our soil).

As with most areas of international law going to far down this rabbit hole will likely lead to madness.
For practical purposes you can assume that four bodies of law will govern every flight:

  • The laws of the country from which the aircraft is departing.
  • The laws of any country whose airspace the aircraft transits, while in that airspace.
  • The laws of the country in which the aircraft is landing.
  • The laws of the country to which the aircraft is registered.

...and if you can avoid breaking any laws in those 4 categories you'll be pretty well covered for most circumstances.

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    $\begingroup$ If you really want an International Aviation Law headache we can throw some additional complexity into the mix: Rent a German-registered plane to a US company who contracts a crew out of Canada to fly the thing; now try to figure out whose laws apply while they're flying over the Pacific enroute to Australia. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Mar 17 '14 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ Prosecution may ultimately depend on a) who knows about the crime, and b) who are they going to tell? $\endgroup$ – Anthony Mar 18 '14 at 4:41
  • $\begingroup$ @anthony-arnold I think for purposes of this question we can assume knowledge of the crime is common to all onboard the aircraft, and that they're motivated to see the guilty party prosecuted. If it's an easily-concealed crime, the perpetrator is adhering to the sage advice of "Keep your fool mouth shut!", and nobody is aware it happened it doesn't much matter what law applies :-) $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Mar 18 '14 at 4:53
  • $\begingroup$ It's an important distinction. Ultimately I think it will depend on who takes you into custody and what they intend to do about it. You won't have to look far to find examples of countries fighting over who has jurisdiction over a crime. Ultimately, whoever has the alleged criminal has the power. $\endgroup$ – Anthony Mar 18 '14 at 4:56
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    $\begingroup$ @anthony-arnold Indeed - that's ultimately a problem for the various nations and their lawyers/departments of state & foreign affairs to deal with. My point in the answer is it can be successfully argued that all of these laws apply: A criminal could be charged under any of them, arrested & held/transferred in accordance with any applicable treaties, etc. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Mar 18 '14 at 4:59

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