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Government Can Learn: Column

March 4th, 2014

Last week, the Department of Transportation fined Asiana Airlines $500,000 for failing to live up to its responsibilities to provide assistance to family members of those affected by the airline's crash last year in San Francisco. Specifically, Asiana failed to properly establish a family assistance center and was very slow in setting up a toll-free number for family members or even contacting some family members after the crash. Some might believe this is a strange target for a federal fine, but it actually represents a sterling example of government at its best.

For decades, federal law was silent about the rights of Americans who lost loved ones in airliner crashes. This changed dramatically during the 1990s.

1994 Pittsburgh crash

Shortly after the September 1994 crash of USAir flight 427 near Pittsburgh, which took the lives of all 132 people aboard, family members complained that personal effects of victims had been thrown into dumpsters along with aircraft wreckage, and that unidentified human remains had been unceremoniously buried in a common grave.

We saw similar problems in 1996, after the crashes of ValuJet flight 592 in the Everglades and TWA 800 near Long Island, which killed all 340 people aboard the planes. In both instances, family members met with insensitive and uncoordinated treatment by the airlines. After TWA 800, it wasn't long before angry families began holding news conferences and local politicians jumped into the fray.

Clearly, something needed to be done, but by whom? Airlines were in the transportation business and were not equipped to handle hundreds of grieving family members. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was in the investigation business, and coroners were overwhelmed by hundreds of deaths in an aircraft accident. Help was needed. Following a series of meetings involving the NTSB, the White House, congressional leaders, the airline industry and family members, all agreed that the NTSB, which is on the scene of crashes in quick order, should be entrusted to lead family affairs activities after major crashes.

Washington works

President Clinton signed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act in October 1996. It required, under NTSB's supervision, that airlines set up family assistance centers near the accident site, house family members, establish toll-free phone numbers for family members and provide counseling. A year later, foreign airlines that serve the USA, such as Asiana, were given the same requirements.

The NTSB established an office of specialists in family assistance and mass casualty disciplines to help during tragic events. Family members are now briefed daily at the accident scene on the investigation's progress, and on the recovery and identification of victims.

After investigators leave the crash site, the NTSB keeps families in the loop. This successful American model has been adopted around the world, including by the European Union.

Since that time, the efforts of the NTSB and the airlines have virtually brought an end to needless chaos for families after major crashes. Last week's action against Asiana is the first time that an airline has failed to live up to its responsibilities and been fined.

The Department of Transportation deserves credit for reminding airlines of what is expected if the worst should occur.

Jim Hall, president of Hall & Associates, was chairman of the NTSB, where Peter Goelz, senior vice president of O'Neill and Associates, was the first director of the Office of Family Assistance.

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