Asiana Airlines fined $500K over SF crash

Updated: 2014-02-26 10:17

By MICHAEL BARRIS in New York (China Daily USA)

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US transportation officials fined Asiana Airlines $500,000 for failing to help family members of passengers on Flight 214 after its deadly crash last year at San Francisco International Airport.

Two teenagers died of injuries suffered in the July 6 crash. Ye Meng Yuan, 16, survived only to be fatally struck by a rescue vehicle on the ground, documents released at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing showed.

The Transportation Department said Tuesday the South Korea-based airline failed to adhere to a federal law requiring foreign airlines to publicize and staff a reliable toll-free phone number for relatives of passengers to get information after a crash. The penalty — the first handed down under the Federal Air Carrier Family Support Act of 1997 — includes a $400,000 fine and $100,000 credited to Asiana for costs in sponsoring conferences and training sessions in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Asiana took two full days to successfully contact the families of three-quarters of the passengers, the department said. The families of several passengers were not contacted until five days following the crash, which also injured 180 passengers and crew members when the Boeing 777 clipped a sea wall and slammed into a runway, according to the department. The three teens were on their way to a US summer camp.

"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," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in announcing the fine. "The last thing families and passengers should have to worry about at such a stressful time is how to get information from their carrier."

Asiana said in a statement that it provided "extensive support to the passengers and their families following the accident and will continue to do so."

In the consent agreement for the fine, Asiana said it had 12 employees on duty at the airport, and that personnel from Los Angeles drove eight hours to help them. United Airlines, Asiana's US partner, helped house passengers and relatives of passengers immediately after the crash. Asiana's CEO arrived in San Francisco on July 9, and Asiana argued that his presence until July 27 ensured that families and passengers would receive high-quality assistance.

Floyd Wisner, the principal of Chicago-based Wisner Law Firm and an aviation crash attorney for 20 years, told China Daily in an interview that he has “never heard of “a fine being levied based upon failure to comply with US law regarding how an airline is to react to a crash regarding dealing with passengers’ families”.

“It’s nice to see them putting some teeth into it,” said Wisner, whose firm seeks to represent the crash victims.

The attorney said airlines have made a greater effort to meet relatives’ requests for information after air disasters in the wake of the 1996 crash of Trans World Airlines Flight 800. The Rome-bound Boeing airliner exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near East Moriches, New York, 12 minutes after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport, killing all 230 on board.

TWA “did not promptly respond to passengers of families from the crash – not because of any ill intent but because they just didn’t know what to do or what to say,” Wisner said. “After that, most airlines developed pretty stringent response programs – with respect to having a team in place and (knowing how to) deal with families seeking information and giving them some temporary comfort and relief and compensation”.

Wisner said he is “shocked” that Asiana, a major airline, lacked crash-response programs as described by the Transportation department.

Asiana said it faced challenges reaching passengers and their relatives because tickets were purchased through travel agents, but set up a 24-hour family assistance desk. Passengers also were provided food and clothing, and crisis counseling was provided by the Red Cross, the airline said.

But the department found that for about one day after the crash, Asiana failed to widely publicize any telephone number for family members of those onboard, and the number available was a reservations line. That line did not include a separate menu option for calls related to the crash, and callers were required to navigate through cumbersome automated menus before being connected to an Asiana employee, according to the department.

In an email to China Daily, Monica Kelly, an aviation attorney with Chicago-based Ribbeck Law Chartered, which represents 115 passengers and legal representatives from the US, China and South Korea, called the fine “appropriate” but said she had hoped it would be bigger.

“Asiana Airlines not only broke US laws but continues to do so by failing to authorize and pay for medical treatment needed by the passengers who survived this crash,” Kelly wrote. She called the $500,000 fine “better than nothing”.

Kelly wrote that many of her clients who survived the crash “were denied the basic living expenses right after the crash and during the period of their medical treatment”. One client, a passenger from China, lost his prescription eye glasses during the accident, but the airline refused to pay for a new pair of glasses, she wrote. Asiana also “has refused to pay reasonable and necessary medical bills incurred as a result of the accident for most of the passengers,” Kelly wrote. “They have refused to pay basic psychological treatment for the children who were in the plane.”

The transportation department also found that Asiana lacked personnel trained in crash response. Kelly, to verify that finding, said “passengers waited more than 10 hours to be seen by a doctor because of the lack of translators. Many of our clients were sent back to Korea or China with fractures because they were not able to communicate properly with the doctors,” she wrote.

Kelly said “many of our clients were held hostage by the hospital until their medical bills were paid by Asiana Airlines. Many of them had to pay their own bills and now Asiana refuses to pay the clients back.”

Kelly’s firm is seeking to have Asiana’s license to fly into the US revoked.