The recent mystery surrounding Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is headed towards tragedy on countless levels. It is tragic in the number of lives lost and in the rippling waves of emotional and psychological damage that has been — and will continue to be — inflicted upon the family members and loved ones of the passengers aboard Flight 370.
As recently as 1995, what’s happening now in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing could very well have taken place in the United States. In that year the United States developed a system that transformed how the government and airlines approached family assistance.
Nearly 20 years ago, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed into law the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996, followed by the Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act of 1997. Those two laws came in the aftermath of the crash of TWA Flight 800 off the coast of Long Island in July 1996 and Korean Airlines Flight 801 in August 1997 on the island of Guam.
They sparked a cultural about-face within the aviation industry by requiring domestic air carriers and all foreign airlines with service to the United States to have clear, standardized disaster management plans in the event of an accident. These plans include specific processes for family notification, investigation progress reports, victim identification, and the cataloging and returning of personal effects. The law also named the National Transportation Safety Board as the lead authority in overseeing families’ needs and concerns in addition to the agency’s mandated investigative duties.
To their great credit, America’s domestic carriers have done a tremendous job in developing their rapid response and family assistance plans. These plans are designed to bring comfort and aid to the victims’ families in their hour of need and help to address their unimaginable pain more effectively. They have worked tirelessly with the NTSB to dramatically improve the timeliness and quality in meeting families’ and loved ones’ needs post crash and beyond.
As the former director of Government, Public and Family Affairs at the NTSB, I have lived through this before. The distressed cries for help of family members searching for the seemingly ever-evasive answers surrounding the loss of their loved ones are choked in the bewilderment and confusion caused by an aviation disaster. At the NTSB, I was a core member in the development of America’s answer in addressing family members’ needs following an aviation crash.
If the Malaysian government and Malaysia Airlines had adopted family assistance plans, philosophically and/or legally, like those developed and followed in the United States, we would most likely not see the out-of-control outrage of families being broadcast for global consumption by the mass media. There would not be protests erupting in Beijing with family members storming the Malaysian embassy there. Families would have been kept informed of the status of the investigations. Counselors, priests, imams, monks and other religious leaders would have been available to help bring comfort to loved ones. Family members would have been brought to Kuala Lumpur, free of charge, so they could be briefed on the investigation’s progress. All this would have been done in the name of doing right by those harmed and not adding to the misery already involved — no matter if the plane’s debris and passenger’s remains are ever found or not. But, alas, this statement is what would have been.
The full story of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 will be unfolding for quite some time, but this crisis should remind the global community’s governments, airlines and the aviation industry as a whole, of the importance of being prepared to address families’ needs when an aviation accident occurs. Governments must step up to meet their citizens’ demands. Airlines must be sensitive to the pain and suffering of the victims’ families and loved ones.
Now is the time, before another accident occurs, or another family member is lost, for the global aviation community and every government to follow the United States’ lead in establishing standardized disaster plans that include processes for family notification, investigation progress reports, victim identification and the cataloging and returning of personal effects. It is not only the right thing to do; it is the only thing to do.
Jamie Finch served in the Clinton administration as director of Government, Public and Family Affairs at NTSB, where he lead family assistance and communications operations for multiple aviation disasters, including TWA 800. Currently he is a partner at Seward Square Group LLC, a government relations and consulting firm based in Washington, D.C.