Following the July 6, 2013, crash of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) fined Asiana Airlines $500,000 for failing to assist passengers’ families in accordance with the Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act of 1997 (the Act). The forerunner of the bill was the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996, which was enacted following several major aviation accidents in which the air carriers, local responders and federal agencies did not effectively work together to provide for the needs of the family members and survivors. The Act was drafted with the purpose of providing the necessary information, services and support to family members of passengers, and to better organize the response of the air carriers, federal agencies and local responders to an aircraft disaster.

The Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act of 1997

Codified at 49 U.S. Code § 4131, the Act requires a foreign air carrier to transmit to the Secretary of Transportation and the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) a plan “for addressing the needs of the families of passengers involved in an aircraft accident that involves an aircraft under the control of the foreign air carrier and results in a major loss of life.” The plan submitted by the foreign air carrier must include the following, among others:

  • A plan for publicizing a reliable toll-free number for the passengers' families
  • A process for notifying, in person if practicable, the families of passengers involved in an aircraft accident
  • An assurance that such notice will be provided to the families as soon as possible after the identity of a passenger has been verified
  • An assurance that such carrier will provide and update a list of the best available information regarding  the names of the passengers aboard the aircraft
  • Assurance that the family of each passenger will be consulted about the disposition of any remains and personal effects of the passenger
  • If requested, return to the family of any possessions of the passenger
  • Assistance to the family to ensure that they are able to travel to and stay at the location. 

The legislation applies to any domestic or foreign commercial aviation accident occurring within the United States, its territories, possessions and territorial seas and resulting in a major loss of life. 49 U.S. Code § 4131.To signify the importance of this family assistance plan, the Act permits the Secretary of Transportation to deny a foreign air carrier’s permit to operate if it fails to include the content required in its permit application.

Application to the Asiana Airlines Crash of July 6, 2013

Following the crash in San Francisco on July 6, 2013, Asiana Airlines was accused of being slow to publicize a reliable phone number for the passengers’ families to obtain information, and failing to notify families as soon as practicable; in some cases, notification was not sent until five days after the crash. Additionally, Asiana was accused of not sending a sufficient number of trained personnel to the scene of the accident and lacking a sufficient number of staff who could communicate in the various languages spoken by passengers.

The DOT noted that under the Act, foreign air carriers assure the DOT that they will adhere to an implemented family assistance plan in the event of an aircraft accident that results in a major loss of life. Asiana contended that a number of factors contributed to their failure to adhere to such a plan, including that it was limited by the number of workers employed at the San Francisco airport.

Although this is the first time the Department of Transportation has issued a fine for a violation under the 1997 Act, foreign and domestic airlines should take note of the penalty imposed by the Department of Transportation and learn from the Asiana crash to ensure their own family assistance plans are adequate, adhered to and effectively implemented in the case of an aircraft accident.