From The Desk Of The NTSB General Counsel: Lessons Learned from Asiana Flight 214

On July 6, 2013, Asiana Flight 214, a Boeing 777-200 ER aircraft, crashed on approach to San Francisco International Airport.  All of the usual accident investigation and liability issues ensued, but a whole additional dimension presented itself when, in an unprecedented action, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) fined Asiana Airlines $500,000.00 for violations of The Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act and the family assistance plan it had filed with the DOT pursuant to that Act. Link

Recently, David Tochen, the General Counsel of the National Transportation Safety Board, which cooperated with the DOT in their investigation of Asiana Airlines, talked about “lessons learned” as a result of Asiana’s actions/inactions.

  1. Carriers may not understand the scope of their obligations with respect to family assistance. Plane-ly Spoken would venture to observe that this is quite likely more of a problem with non-US carriers, which frequently view The Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act and its requirements as more of a “checking the box” exercise than a substantive requirement necessitating relatively comprehensive planning and preparation.
  2. Plans filed with the DOT need more detail, rather than simply repeating the 18 assurances required by the Act. Once again, we would note that far too many family assistance plans, as filed with DOT, are superficial and simply confirm that the procedures for meeting the requirements of the Act are in place.  Regrettably, there is, all too frequently, very little planning or actual preparation behind those assurances.
  3. Better planning is required between foreign carriers and their supporting airline alliance partners. Remember, when an accident occurs in the US, the carrier responsible for the accident/family response is not the code share or alliance partner.  It’s the carrier involved in the accident.  In the Asiana Flight 214 accident, for example, the only role of the code share partner was to, in the words of David Tochen, provide “gap filler services until Asiana [was] fully functional about 5 days post-accident.”

The experience of Plane-ly Spoken is that it is far too easy for a foreign carrier to not fully appreciate what it means for them and their obligations when they have an accident/incident in the US. The simple fact is that every carrier operating into the United States needs a full spectrum emergency response plan and should not rely upon their code share/alliance partners.

Both NTSB and DOT should conduct outreach to educate foreign carriers and industry-wide organizations, presumably IATA. A worthy goal but one which should include the alliances, like the Star Alliance and Sky Team Alliance, as well.

Undoubtedly, the $500,000 penalty imposed on Asiana Airlines has gotten everyone’s attention, particularly the foreign air carrier community.  On a going forward basis, there is no reason why such issues and problems should present themselves again.  Let’s hope we don’t get the opportunity anytime soon to test the accuracy of this statement.

(Originally posted December 13 2014)

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