Until this week, the United States government has never once charged an airline for breaking a 1997 law known as the Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act, which requires carriers to administer prompt and generous assistance to the loved ones of crash victims.
But the Department of Transportation said Tuesday that it found South Korea’s Asiana Airlines had failed to create a widely publicized hotline and adhere to a “family assistance plan” for relatives of passengers on Flight 214 after it crashed at San Francisco International Airport last year. As a result, it fined the carrier a half-million dollars and ordered it to cease and desist from further violations.
Three people died and 180 more were injured on July 6 when the Asiana Airlines flight out of Seoul clipped a seawall and tumbled down the runway. While the National Transportation Safety Board investigation continues, a DOT investigation into the aftermath concluded that the airline had contacted only three-quarters of family members two days after the crash, while it took five days to reach the families of all 291 passengers.
Foreign air carriers must, among other requirements, notify the families of passengers involved in an aircraft accident as soon as practicable after the carrier has verified the identity of a passenger, publicize and staff a reliable toll-free phone number to take calls from families of passengers involved in an aircraft accident, and commit sufficient resources to carry out the family assistance plan.
“In the very rare event of a crash, airlines have a responsibility to provide their full support to help passengers and their families by following all the elements of their family assistance plans,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. “The last thing families and passengers should have to worry about at such a stressful time is how to get information from their carrier.”
Fox added that the DOT was “committed to protecting consumers and their families when they travel and will continue to take enforcement action when federal statutes are violated.”
Because many of the passengers traveling on the Asiana Airlines flight had families living in South Korea or China, the airline was their main source of information on the crash from half a world away. Yet the carrier did not publicize a number for family members of those on board to call until 18 and a half hours after the crash, the DOT said, adding that another entity established that number.
Asiana’s response indicated that the carrier “failed to commit sufficient resources” like trained personnel, bilingual staff and a passenger property return team to assist the victims and their families until five days after the crash, the DOT concluded.
Asiana said its job after the accident was complicated by a limited number of workers at San Francisco’s airport. The injured passengers, for instance, were sent to 13 hospitals, and no one had prepared a list to help the airline track their whereabouts. Hospitals, meanwhile, were reluctant to release passenger information to the airline under privacy laws.
In a statement, Asiana Airlines told the Associated Press that it provided “extensive support to passengers and their families following the accident and will continue to do so.”
The South Korean carrier has 30 days to pay $400,000 of its fine, while it will spend the remaining $100,000 on multiple industry-wide conferences and training sessions to provide others with lessons learned from the crash aftermath.