Asiana Airlines Inc. (020560) violated U.S. law by not promptly helping victims and family members after the July crash in San Francisco of one of its planes, the Department of Transportation said in assessing the first such fine against an aircraft carrier.
Asiana, based in Seoul, forced family members to negotiate multiple automated menus to reach a live person by phone after the accident, took almost 18.5 hours to set up an information hotline, didn’t send trained employees to San Francisco until two days after the crash and lacked enough translators, the department said.
It fined the airline $500,000. Three people died in the crash.
The carrier didn’t contact families of several passengers until five days after the accident, the department said.
“The last thing families and passengers should have to worry about at such a stressful time is how to get information from their carrier,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement yesterday.
The department statement and a consent order detailing the civil charges provide the first official account of the chaos within Asiana, which had 12 employees assigned to San Francisco, as it attempted after the crash to locate passengers and pass on news about them to their loved ones. The three fatalities were teenaged girls from China.
The findings highlight complacency by some foreign carriers in preparing for tragedies, said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the NTSB who helped draft portions of the 1997 law outlining requirements for victim assistance.
“All accidents are chaotic,” Goelz said in an interview. “That’s why you have a plan. The plan should involve some fundamental components, like being able to put up an 800 number that’s actually manned by an adequate number of people and having a process and procedures to get boots on the ground to assist your customers in the shortest possible time.”
The Asiana flight carrying 291 passengers struck a seawall as pilots attempted to land in San Francisco. The impact tore off part of the tail and sent the jet skidding down the runway before it came to rest and caught fire.
Passengers spilled out of the plane onto the airport grounds and about 182 ended up treated in hospitals, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
The airline, which didn’t admit a violation of the law, said its employees made “monumental efforts” to assist victims and their families.
“Asiana believes its conduct should be evaluated in the context of the challenges it faced in the hours and days after the accident that occurred on the Saturday of the July 4 holiday weekend,” the order said. The accident occurred at 3:28 a.m. Sunday in Seoul.
An unspecified number of Asiana employees drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco after the accident, an 8-hour trip, because the airport was closed. Along with employees from South Korea, it also sent senior executives to San Francisco, the carrier said.
Asiana said it didn’t have phone numbers for a majority of U.S. citizens on the flight because they had been ticketed by travel agents or websites that didn’t pass contact information to the carrier.
Travel agents in China, which booked other passengers, don’t provide the carrier with any contact information, according to Asiana.
“Asiana provided extensive support to the passengers and their families following the accident and will continue to do so,” spokesman Ki Won Suh said in an e-mail.
Before the information hotline was set up, “Asiana failed to widely publicize any telephone number and the only number generally available to the public that family members could call was Asiana’s toll-free reservations line,” the transportation department said in the consent order. “Locating this phone number on Asiana’s website required significant effort.”
Asiana, which had contracted with an unidentified U.S. carrier for its family-assistance operation, didn’t allocate sufficient resources to the effort, according to the order.
Asiana agreed to pay the fine to avoid litigation, according to the order. It must pay the U.S. $400,000. An additional $100,000 will cover the cost of Asiana holding training sessions for other carriers.
The U.S. Congress passed legislation protecting domestic passengers in the aftermath of a crash in 1996, following several accidents. The law was expanded in 1997 after a Korean Airlines plane crashed in Guam, killing 228 of the 254 people aboard.
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