Airlines Help Traumatized Family Members After Major Disasters

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.

When a major airline carrier like Malaysia Airlines suffers a disaster like the disappearance of flight MH370, a crisis management program is immediately triggered to assist family members.

In the U.S., the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) coordinates the response through its Transportation Disaster Assistance Division (TAD) in accordance with the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996. It makes the TAD “the coordinator for the integration of Federal government resources and the resources of other organizations to support efforts of local and State governments and the air carrier to meet the needs of aviation disaster victims and their families,” according to NTSB’s Federal Family Assistance Plan for Aviation Disasters.

The law sets out a number of steps airlines must follow to aid those affected by an accident.

“The air carrier has a fundamental responsibility to victims and their families affected by an aviation disaster,” the NTSB states. “The air carrier's primarily responsible for family notification and all aspects of victim and family logistical support.” This includes providing transportation to the accident city.

The first action is usually the establishment by the air carrier of a Family Assistance Center to serve as a private, secure place where family members can go to receive information and learn about resources, such as grief counseling, accommodations and transportation available to them.

"The air carrier has a fundamental responsibility to victims and their families affected by an aviation disaster."

“Professional crisis counseling services are available to family members, survivors and friends through the American Red Cross,” at the Family Assistance Center – usually set up in a nearby hotel -- according to the NTSB. Those not able or willing to travel to the center can obtain such counseling at home through their local Red Cross chapters in coordination with the TDA division.

The airline will work with local clergy, psychologists, and medical personnel to provide grief support. What form that counseling takes depends upon the family’s wishes. It could be a simple chat with clergy, or formal therapy.

Any airline flying into the United States is required to meet the requirements of the Family Assistance Act. Last month, Asiana Airlines was fined $500,000 for failing to properly assist families following the runway accident in San Francisco last year, the first time such a fine has been levied.

Many major international airlines will go beyond the requirements of the law – which has become a kind of de facto standard around the world – and assign each family a sort of designated “concierge” to answer questions, handle travel arrangements, and advise on grief counselors.

As a major international carrier with regular flights into the U.S., and as a member of the One World Alliance, which also includes airlines like American Airlines, British Airways, and Japan Airlines, Malaysia Airlines could be expected to follow these protocols.

Every accident is different, and the circumstances surrounding flight MH307 are unusual. The counseling and aid to families in Kuala Lumpur may differ from that offered to families in the plane’s destination in Beijing according to differences in local law and customs. But the International Air Transport Association (IATA) holds training classes to help airlines prepare for these very situations and most follow the same basic guidelines.

The longer term trauma for family members won’t stop once the plane is found, of course. Airlines hire outside experts to manage logistics and ongoing management. Kenyon International Emergency Services is one major contractor that assists airlines with body identification, the return of personal effects, the repatriation of bodies, and arranging memorial services.

For example, when LAM Mozambique Airlines flight TM470 crashed in Namibia, Kenyon helped the airline and local authorities establish a family assistance center in Maputo, Mozambique. It also provided a mobile mortuary and arranged counseling and other services.

No airline wants to be seen as skimping on helping grieving, distraught family members in a time of crisis.