This question got me thinking... if there was an emergency situation on a commercial airliner (let's say both engines have flamed out or something) and the pilot wants to do one thing (land in the sea), while ATC insists they try to turn around and land at the airport... who has the final say?

Obviously the pilot is the one physically in control of the aircraft, but if he ignores ATC, believing his approach is the only safe approach and ends up killing half of the passengers in the process, would he be liable for 100% responsibility since he didn't listen to ATC?


3 Answers 3


The pilot has 100% responsibility for how, where and when to fly/land. The movies make it seem like pilots are just mindless drones, under the control of ATC.

In actual fact ATC are there as an aid to the pilot, helping stop big metal tubes from colliding with one another.

This was borne out (to some extent) on US Airways 1549 where ATC were advising the pilot he could aim for his nearest airfield. His skill and experience (and of course having a front-row seat!) told him he would not make it, and he took the action to ditch on the Hudson river - saving all on board. We will never know what the outcome would have been if he had followed ATC advice, but multiple trips in a simulator have told us it might not have ended so well.

Final say is ALWAYS, 100% of the time, with the PIC.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, we do know what would have happened. They simulated the event with multiple pilots and all that tried to land at the airport crashed on first attempt. $\endgroup$
    – Cloud
    Commented Jul 27, 2018 at 11:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Cloud While that gives us a pretty high confidence... there could be other factors that we just don't have enough information to simulate; that could have made the difference. Hell, even without hidden variables, people aren't the most consistent creatures; there's a chance everyone survived if they tried for an airfield. $\endgroup$
    – Delioth
    Commented Jul 27, 2018 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Delioth Of course, if no-one can make the landing in the sim, it becomes a lot harder to blame the pilot for not trying. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 27, 2018 at 14:07
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    $\begingroup$ @BruceWayne In an emergency the controller's job is to keep other traffic out of the way and provide the pilot with any information he may need. Beyond that his job is to leave the pilots alone and let them do what they need to do. He's in a support role. $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Commented Jul 27, 2018 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ @BruceWayne Why make it up when you can read the transcript? :) $\endgroup$
    – Bob
    Commented Jul 27, 2018 at 19:39

Well, since you specifically say "emergency situation" (yes, all-engines flame-out definitely qualifies as an emergency)...

I'm going to refer to the US regulations, simply because those are among the easiest to find in English. I'm also willing to bet that most jurisdiction have similar legal texts in place, differing at most in details.

14 CFR §91.3(a) and (b) and §91.13 are the basic rules, which state that:

§91.3 Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command.

(a) The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.

(b) In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.

§91.13 Careless or reckless operation.

No person may operate an aircraft (...) in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.

(There are two variants in §91.13, but they boil down to the same thing, so I summarized them above.)

Under normal (non-emergency) circumstances, pilots are required to comply with ATC instructions and clearances. Excerpted from §91.123:

§91.123 Compliance with ATC clearances and instructions.

(a) When an ATC clearance has been obtained, no pilot in command may deviate from that clearance unless an amended clearance is obtained, an emergency exists, or the deviation is in response to a traffic alert and collision avoidance system resolution advisory. However, except in Class A airspace, a pilot may cancel an IFR flight plan if the operation is being conducted in VFR weather conditions. When a pilot is uncertain of an ATC clearance, that pilot shall immediately request clarification from ATC.

(b) Except in an emergency, no person may operate an aircraft contrary to an ATC instruction in an area in which air traffic control is exercised.

(c) Each pilot in command who, in an emergency, or in response to a traffic alert and collision avoidance system resolution advisory, deviates from an ATC clearance or instruction shall notify ATC of that deviation as soon as possible.

In an emergency situation, §91.3(b) and §91.123(c) take precedence; notice the exception for emergency situations throughout most of the above. These basically boil down to, if there is an emergency, the pilots can do what they deem necessary in order to deal with that emergency in a safe and expedient manner. However, they do have to tell ATC about it, generally "as soon as possible" (as in §91.123(c)), and it's not a free pass to do anything at any time just because the pilots want to; pilots who exercise their emergency authority should expect getting a talking to after they land, once the emergency situation clearly no longer exists. Once ATC knows about the emergency, they can help, for example by providing vectors to an airfield or by vectoring other aircraft out of the way. Even if you're flying in uncontrolled airspace, ATC might still be able to provide things like traffic advisories. In an emergency, trust me, any reasonable pilot will take all the help they can get, however little, but it had better actually help. The standard litmus test for aviation radio still applies: does saying on the radio what I'm about to transmit help increase aviation safety? If not, then refrain.

So ATC can make suggestions, in the form of instructions and clearances, and under normal circumstances pilots are expected and required to comply with those; but if an emergency exists, the pilot is free to give ATC the proverbial finger by simply saying "unable" and telling ATC what they are going to do instead, and ATC has to simply live with that fact, provide the assistance they are able to, and ensure the safety of other aircraft in the area. Everything else can wait until the aircraft (singular or plural) involved are safely on the ground. About all it takes is the magic word "mayday" or "declaring emergency".

All that said, if an airplane suffers a complete loss of engine power, then that plane is going to intersect the ground in short order no matter what ATC says or does. So even if they somehow had the power to, ATC telling the pilots "no you can't" would be about as productive as to tell the moon to stop orbiting the Earth, in that they can say it all they want, but it's not going to change the outcome. Obviously the pilots are going to do everything in their power to avoid a crash landing, but if they can't fix the problem while still in the air, then it will become a problem on the ground in one manner or another. ATC insisting that the pilots do something else would, at best, be a distraction reducing the pilots' ability to deal with the emergency. Of course, if the pilots are about to do something like fly into a mountain that ATC can't vector out of the way, it might still be a good idea for ATC to recommend to the pilots of the stricken flight to make a turn...

  • $\begingroup$ Saying “unable” is actually unrelated to emergency. By it the pilot simply rejects a clearance following which (they think) would be out of safe flight envelope of their aircraft. It happens e.g. when the controller requests crossing certain point above or below some altitude and the pilot does not think they can climb or descend as fast at their current condition. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ @JanHudec Right; I didn't mean to imply that the only situation in which one might say "Unable" is during an emergency, but rather that an emergency is one possible reason why one might be unable to comply with ATC instructions, or why one might feel that complying with ATC instructions is unsafe. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 14:09

The pilot in control has the final authority. They also have the responsibility to comply with ATC instructions under normal circumstances. Emergency authorizes the pilot to operate how they believe necessary for safe operation of the aircraft.

If the pilot ends up causing an accident, that's what he will be responsible for. If deviating from ATC instructions was the reason, it may or may not be be considered negligence or error.

See the canonical question: Who has the higher authority, the pilot in command or ATC?


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