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Understanding Best Practices for Aviation Disaster Victims, According to Victims

Mar 13, 2014 9:20 am

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Airlines don’t naturally know how to respond to situations like the missing Malaysia Air flight, but there is a rulebook in place to help them along.

— Jason Clampet

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A relative (front) of a passenger of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries as she walks past journalists at a hotel in Beijing March 9, 2014. Jason Lee / Reuters


As enraged and grieving family members of passengers aboard Malaysia flight 370 cast water bottles at airline representatives, some voices question whether the airline is doing all it can for the families of the 239 passengers onboard.

Jennifer Stansberry Miller and Terri Henry Severin of Connections, a disaster resource consortium which evolved from their Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Project, tell us that the first experiences of those who lose loved ones in an aviation disaster are most critical. Families live with those first hours and days for the rest of their lives.

Jennifer and Terri should know. They met under tragic circumstances when their family members perished on American Eagle Flight 4184 in Roselawn, Indiana. For Terri it was her sister Patty and her four-year-old nephew Patrick who died. Jennifer lost her brother Brad, who was 27 at the time.

They channeled grief and anger at the airline’s mishandling of the incident, to action. They lobbied for better treatment for survivors and victim’s families. Their advocacy resulted in the passage of the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996, and the Foreign Air Carrier act of 1997.

As a result of these Acts, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) established universal guidelines for airlines to follow.

Jennifer testified before the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, and gave input as the policies mandated by the Act were drafted.

Terri wrote In the Wake of the Storm: Living Beyond the Tragedy of Flight 4184, a document of the events which led to this critical legislation and highlighting the “need for change in airline response.”

“People use the world ‘closure’ a lot,” says Terri, when she shares with us a list of platitudes the victims of families hear most often. Closure, they tell us, can take as long as fifty years for some.

Families need specific actions, detailed in the Act and in the ICAO Policy on Assistance to Aircraft Accident Victims and their Families. Because accidents are so rare, airlines may have become complacent in training and adherence to these guidelines, they tell us. And airlines must ensure the catastrophe funding stipulated in the guidelines is reserved.

Malaysia has followed the ICAO checklist, as Jennifer and Terri see it; in sharp contrast to Asiana Airlines, after flight 214, whose inadequate crisis management earned them a $500,000 fine from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Top among the requirements: information. And this is the principle area where the handling of Malaysia flight 370 fails to meet the needs of families.

Jennifer and Terri point out that MH370 is an unprecedented situation. So little is known, and the airline has not had much information to give. Still, families should be updated, at set times, at least twice a day, and kept informed of any progress at all times. “Some information is better than none,” Terri emphasizes.

In today’s social media world, the speed at which information is shared poses a problem for airlines, they tell us. News, conjecture, and false leads abound. These only lead to confusion, false hope, and greater anguish for those wondering about the fate of their loved ones.

Both Jennifer and Terri found it shocking that the passenger manifest was published on Twitter by a Chinese airport official in the early hours of the announcement that the plane was missing; long before the airline posted an update that they had notified the relations of those onboard.

How family members find out that their loved ones are involved in an aviation catastrophe stays with them forever, and can do great psychological harm. Updates to social media may address the needs of the public, but families have needs social media cannot address.

However, airlines must ensure that family members get the facts from them directly and often. An airline representative must always be present, along with grief counselors and spiritual guides. Airlines, they tell us, have an obligation to never leave families alone.

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