What are the consequences of a pilot flying a scheduled airline flight with passengers deviating from a flight plan to perform a random maneuver?

Say during a normal landing procedure, he spots something interesting not in his normal flight plan nor in the normal landing procedure, and decides to do a fly over, then returns to land the plane normally.

I imagine he would be fired from his company, but would there be legal action against him? If so, what would be the severity of the crime? (We can assume the US or Europe).

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Gee, the last sentence is kind of an invitation for discussion and a little too broad. Obviously he could hit him with a hammer or shoot him with a gun. $\endgroup$ Jul 14, 2019 at 22:45
  • $\begingroup$ I can make that a separate question $\endgroup$
    – zundi
    Jul 14, 2019 at 22:46
  • $\begingroup$ aviation.stackexchange.com/q/66578/1796 $\endgroup$
    – zundi
    Jul 14, 2019 at 22:51
  • $\begingroup$ Can you clarify exactly what scenario you mean? There's a big difference between someone ferrying a C172 solo under VFR to an uncontrolled airport, and someone flying a scheduled airline flight with another pilot and several hundred passengers on board. But both are commercial flights. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Jul 14, 2019 at 22:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Pondlife Updated $\endgroup$
    – zundi
    Jul 14, 2019 at 22:54

1 Answer 1


As long as the pilots clear it with ATC and it doesn't violate the general rule against careless or reckless actions, there is nothing illegal about it. Pilots frequently request minor route changes, and ATC generally grants them if conditions permit. For instance, aircraft departing SFO often request a scenic pass by the Golden Gate Bridge as a treat for themselves and/or their passengers.

As long as no laws are broken (see above), their employer won't know whether the deviation was initiated by ATC or by the pilot, nor would they probably care even if they did know.

OTOH, if a pilot deviates from ATC instructions, it could potentially get them killed, so few pilots would knowingly do that. Deviations are almost always unintentional, and unless the pilot has a history of such problems that calls his qualifications into question, he/she will most likely get a "counseling" session and perhaps some refresher training.

  • $\begingroup$ "their employer won't know" That's not quite accurate. Almost all airlines are participating in a FOQA (Flight Operations Quality Assurance) programme. The airline might not directly get the data but if a particular pilot regularly requests deviations, this might come up. $\endgroup$
    – Bianfable
    Jul 15, 2019 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Bianfable FOQA is about safety and efficiency, and as long as key metrics are met, no alarm will be generated and no human will ever see the data. And unless a human reviews the radio tapes, they would have no idea who initiated any particular deviation out of dozens per flight times thousands of flights per day, nor any reason to care. And since most deviations are shortcuts (saving the employer money and passengers time), if anything, they want pilots to request deviations! $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Jul 15, 2019 at 16:42

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