When US President Bill Clinton signed the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act into law in 1996, it was the apex of a long struggle. Following several accidents, both victims associations and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had long been demanding to better care for the needs of the victims’ beloved ones in the immediate aftermath of an aviation disaster. Last week Asiana Airlines now got fined by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) for not complying with these regulations after flight 214 had crashed in San Francisco on July 4th 2013. It’s the first time the DOT issued a fine under this statute. 500.000 USD, that’s what Asiana has to pay to Uncle Sam now. However, the overall price for not having had the necessary resources available to carry out its emergency plan could be significantly higher.
Patrick Meschenmoser (Frankfurt am Main)
Until 1996 there had only been recommendations, for example, on how to cope with the immense need for information friends and relatives of passengers have right after they get word of a crash. In the event of a major incident the Family Assistance Act now commits all carriers operating into and out of the United States to…
…establish a reliable, toll-free telephone hotline for friends and families.
…notify the families of passengers involved in person by trained personnel before any disclosure of their names to the public.
…provide sufficient resources in order to assist families and friends that wish to travel to the accident side and to accommodate them.
…establish a proper process to identify and return personal belongings of the passengers.
Indeed there are many more issues the Family Assistance Act covers, like memorial services or even the raise of a monument. Airlines have to file a respective emergency plan for approval by US authorities, which assume that you will be able to carry it out once the alarm bells ring.
An aviation disaster for sure is one of the most complex crisis situations one can imagine. The case of Asiana Airlines sheds a spotlight on the need for an always up to date emergency plan. The most important lesson though is: a plan is not enough. Without corresponding structures in place it remains a paper tiger. Without committing the necessary resources and constantly training your staff it remains a worthless document. However, if the homework is properly done, there is a lot what institutions or corporations that might once face a mass fatality incident (MFI) can learn from aviation industry.
As a result of the Family Assistance Act and corresponding legislation around the globe, many airlines established family assistance teams. Their names may vary. Some airlines like Lufthansa call them Special Assistance Teams. But they all share the same purpose: to assist survivors, friends and relatives in case of a major incident. The team members are usually specially trained volunteers from all across the airline. Incorporated in a sophisticated alarming structure, they are often based at different locations corresponding to the carrier’s network. These teams have improved the care for those involved in an aviation accident tremendously. Not only do they get a special psychological training - a training that is essential when facing the beloved ones of the passengers, who are concerned at best or torn apart by their grief in the worst case. The assistance teams have in-depth knowledge of the airline’s structures, the emergency plan and the facilities to accommodate families and friends. The task is to inform them as comprehensively as possible, to take care of their wellbeing, to act as a liaison to the airline or simply to be there and listen.
Relatives of a victim giving a statement that they have been neglected, uninformed, left behind or even misled are a worst case scenario for each crisis communicator. One can hardly imagine anything that harms the reputation of a company more than that. All expressions of condolences and concern on behalf of the company will appear like a cheap stunt afterwards. So when it comes to victims’ family and friends there are some lessons that could be learned from aviation disasters of the past:
• Have a proper emergency plan in place
• Provide the necessary resources to execute it
• Train your staff properly
• Have rehearsals and drills on a regular basis
• Establish family assistance teams
• Prefer own employees over contractors as team members to demonstrate your credibility and your sense of responsibility
• Think of dedicated facilities where families and friends can be accommodated and find a retreat
• Make sure they get protection from the media, but never try to restrain them when they have the wish to speak out
Apart from sheer ethical aspects, a proper family assistance is in any case a must have for all crisis managers that might once have to deal with a MFI. That applies to the transportation industry as well as the energy and oil sector, the construction industry, the chemical sector, you name it.
This of course comes at a cost and one might cynically say 500,000 USD are not too high a fine to pay instead of establishing an expensive emergency management. But the actual cost is way higher: lawyers suing the company for negligence, negative coverage in the media, employees that feel ashamed for their company. In short: a massive damage to the reputation. Something all the industries mentioned above depend on.