Legal Aspects of Airport Programs. Task 05-02. Sovereign Immunity for Public Airport Operators

The legal principle of sovereign immunity has its origins in the common law principle that as the ruler of the country, sovereign (government) cannot be sued unless it consents. Today, while the principle remains, it is the subject of legislative enactments at the federal and state levels that circumscribe, limit or otherwise waive sovereign immunity. The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution also protects states from being sued in federal courts. Most public airports are owned and operated by units of local government or regional governmental authorities. Airport owners may be cities, counties, local airport authorities, local or regional multi-modal transportation authorities, and bi-state authorities. A few states operate airports directly. For the various local governmental authorities, any sovereign immunity must derive from state legislation, because local governments are not recognized as sovereigns in their own right, but are treated as exercising sovereign powers delegated by the states. The extent of sovereign immunity granted to airports varies from state to state. State legislation may distinguish between the type of local entity. A county's immunity may not be coextensive with a city's. The law may distinguish between "governmental" functions and "commercial" functions. Airport operations may be categorized as governmental in one jurisdiction and commercial in another. Judicial decisions may also affect the scope of an airport operator's sovereign immunity. In some states sovereign immunity may not be granted to municipal entities but state law may limit the types of claims that can be brought or cap the amount of damages that can be recovered. In addition, state laws or judicial interpretations may provide for express waivers of sovereign immunity (for example, through the purchase of liability insurance) or the loss of sovereign immunity through conduct. The objective of this research is to produce an easy-to-use compendium of the law of sovereign immunity as it applies to airports in each of the states and territories of the United States. The report should provide general background on the theory and underlying legal sources for the principle of sovereign immunity and the application of the principle to airport operators. The report also should identify the major issues considered by legislatures and the courts in determining whether an airport operator has the benefit of sovereign immunity through conduct.


  • English


  • Status: Active
  • Contract Numbers:

    Project 11-01, Topic

  • Sponsor Organizations:

    Federal Aviation Administration

    800 Independence Avenue, SW
    Washington, DC  United States  20591

    Airport Cooperative Research Program

    Transportation Research Board
    500 Fifth Street, NW
    Washington, DC    20001
  • Project Managers:

    Greenberger, Marci

  • Performing Organizations:

    Seay Law International

  • Principal Investigators:

    Seay, Pamella

  • Start Date: 20131107
  • Expected Completion Date: 0
  • Actual Completion Date: 20140630
  • Source Data: RiP Project 38328

Subject/Index Terms

Filing Info

  • Accession Number: 01547647
  • Record Type: Research project
  • Source Agency: Transportation Research Board
  • Contract Numbers: Project 11-01, Topic
  • Files: TRB, RiP
  • Created Date: Dec 12 2014 1:01AM