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Remarks for IATA Aviation-Industry Conference, Crisis Management 2002
Carol Carmody
International Air Transport Association (IATA) Aviation-Industry Conference, Crisis Management 2002

I appreciate being invited to join you here today to discuss an issue of importance to all of us in the aviation community - the future of family assistance and emergency response in the modern world. Indeed, I was very pleased to receive the invitation to this conference because your agenda signifies how much progress we've made in a relatively short period of time. It has only been six years since we began to truly focus our collective attention - and resources - on the needs and concerns of transportation accident victims' families. It was long overdue. Now, we're looking forward - to how we can prepare for the future. But before we do that - I think it's appropriate that we remember how we got here.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was established in 1967 as an independent federal agency to investigate all civil aviation accidents in the United States and all major accidents in the surface modes - marine, highway, railroad and pipeline. In addition, we conduct safety studies on issues of national significance such as personal watercraft safety and operator fatigue. Based on these investigations and studies, the Board makes recommendations to prevent similar accidents from recurring. Taking care of the families of victims wasn't in our mandate - it wasn't anyone's responsibility.

After a series of aircraft crashes in the early nineties, a number of family members began sharing their experiences with the Board. They told stories of continuous busy signals from the airline's 800 accident information number, the lack of information, untimely notification, misidentified remains, personal effects being mishandled, unidentified remains not handled with dignity, and the use of confidential information in the litigation that inevitably followed. In short, when they needed guidance, assistance, and compassion, they felt abandoned and abused. Their feelings were not unique; we soon found that family members from almost every other accident shared them.

Congress responded to these concerns in 1996 by passing the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act. This made the Board the lead federal agency for coordinating federal assets at accident scenes. And, it gave the Board the authority to bring together federal, state, and local government agencies to accommodate the victims of transportation accidents and their families. The act also required the U.S. airline industry to take specific steps to mitigate the effects of an airline disaster on the victims' family members. All domestic airlines are required to have a plan in place, and on file with the Department of Transportation (DOT), to efficiently respond to such tragedies. This plan address how the airlines will provide a reliable toll-free telephone number for families, train the staff to answer all family inquiries, provide timely notification to the family members regarding the accident, and secure a facility to establish a family assistance center.

Following a crash in Guam, we realized that foreign air carriers flying in and out of the United States were not covered by the 1996 legislation. As a result, Congress passed the Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act of 1997 that required foreign carriers serving the U.S. to develop family assistance plans and fulfill the same requirements as U.S. domestic airlines.

The 1996 and 1997 acts have helped ensure that all victims and their families are fairly treated regardless of the carrier they use. These acts also required carriers that had not previously thought about family assistance issues to actively consider them in their planning. The legislation, however, did not require airports to take any specific actions to assist victims' families following an accident. Many airport managers and Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting commanders have told us that they have developed family assistance response plans to deal with family members who might come to the airport - as many do -- following a crash. In fact, many airports have been working with the Board's Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance, which was formerly the Office of Family Affairs, to develop programs with local communities to provide services until airline and federal resources arrive on scene.

Following a 1999 crash at the Little Rock airport, it became even more apparent that airports needed to be better prepared to assist survivors and family members. In September 1999, the FAA issued an Airport Emergency Plan Advisory Circular listing areas for airports to consider in order to enhance their ability to assist family members. These areas include:

  • mutual aid agreements among the airlines at the airport;
  • additional coordination with local emergency services;
  • pre-determined location for a "Friends and Family" reception area in the terminal;
  • improved information flow between the affected airline and the airport;
  • terminal access for airline employees during an emergency; and
  • plans to assist non-tenant airlines involved in a disaster.
In addition to these efforts, our former Chairman, Jim Hall, felt so strongly about the effectiveness of the family assistance program that he participated in 1998 as part of the U.S. Delegation to the triennial Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization, and offered a resolution urging countries to develop family assistance programs. The resolution passed and a number of countries have developed similar assistance programs to address the needs of families.

A little earlier, I mentioned the Board's Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance (TDA). Some of you may have already worked with them. The office was formed in 1996 to coordinate and integrate the major resources of the federal government and other organizations, and to work with the local and state government and the airline to meet the needs of aviation disaster victims and their families. The staff helps coordinate family counseling, victim identification and forensic services, communications with foreign governments, and translation services.

I have seen the office in action on several occasions at accident sites, and the staff is impressive. They coordinate assistance, information, identification and recovery, and strive to assure that families receive courteous and sensitive treatment and assistance with the various needs that accompany an accident. In the six years since the office was established, the staff has been launched to not only major aviation disasters, but also to numerous railroad, highway, marine, and pipeline accidents. In addition, they have encouraged a collaborative partnership between industry, government and private non-profit organizations to ensure that victims' families receive assistance.

We have learned through much experience that no one person or agency can manage these catastrophic events alone. This was evident in the days and weeks following the January 2000 crash of Alaska Air flight 261. Following that accident, 73 agencies stepped forward to offer their services - every one of them with a special area of expertise. Although this accident involved a U.S. air carrier, in U.S. waters, a similar accident could happen at any time - anywhere in the world. Think about that. Are you prepared to meet the needs of several hundred family members? Can you manage the services of multiple agencies that want to provide necessary services? Are there plans in place? Have they been tested? Are your people trained? Is the necessary coordination in place?

The work of providing assistance to victims and their family members affected by a major transportation disaster is a continually evolving process. In the past six years, we have made tremendous strides as evidenced by the responses to Swissair flight 111, Egypt Air flight 990, Alaska Airlines flight 261, and American Airlines flight 587. However, we still have a great deal of work to do.

While the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act is clear regarding the responsibilities of the air carrier in the immediate aftermath of the accident, there is less clarity in the later phases of the investigation. Recent experiences have shown us that the working relationship between the NTSB staff and the air carrier in support of family members remains critical throughout the Board's investigative process.

Family members have indicated that support provided by the air carriers has been very helpful: support such as providing assistance for the one year memorial service, providing for the viewing of the wreckage, or sponsoring a remote satellite viewing location near their home to allow them to observe the Board's proceedings.

Providing accurate and timely information to family members is critical to their understanding of the accident. Although the Board has the primary responsibility for ensuring that that occurs throughout the investigation from our initial on-scene presence at the accident site until the final Board meeting --- we need the airlines' help to do that in the most responsible, effective way possible. Family members want to attend our hearings and Board meetings. Many are unable to because of the travel involved. Providing transportation assistance or a satellite feed allows those families to participate in the process.

While there is no legislative mandate for airlines to provide assistance to the families during Board proceedings, it is the right thing to do. If the situation arises, I encourage all of you to coordinate with the TDA staff to ensure that everyone's interests, especially those of the family members, are considered. I believe it is in everyone's best interest to keep the needs of the family members in mind throughout this lengthy and difficult process. Doing so will allow us to avoid unnecessary and unpleasant situations - for the airline, for the Board, and most especially, for the families.

The events of September 11, 2001 clearly demonstrated that we must continue our efforts to be prepared for whatever might happen - wherever it might happen. On the morning of September 11, when I got the first call about a jet hitting a building in New York, I assumed I would be heading up there with a Go-Team. Within minutes, after the second plane hit, I realized this was not likely to be an NTSB investigation. The FBI Director called and I immediately went to his office, arriving just as the building was being evacuated and reports were coming in that the Pentagon had been hit. We were also receiving minute-by-minute bulletins about the plane in Pennsylvania.

I left to return to headquarters and assured Director Mueller that we would assist in any way we could, but that it was obvious these were not accidents. No sooner had I reached my office than he called and said, "Could you send us some people to help find the black boxes and help identify aircraft parts." We dispatched teams immediately to Pennsylvania, New York and across the river to the Pentagon. We were able to recover cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders from the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. Our experts read out the recorders and provided the information to the FBI for their use in the investigation. Our investigators stayed in New York for several months working both at Ground Zero as well as at the Freshkill site where large amounts of debris were taken to be sorted.

In addition to the technical experts, we also dispatched teams from our then-named Family Affairs office to each crash site - and they remained there for weeks - helping family members, assisting in the identification process, doing whatever they could to assist the FBI, the Department of Defense, and local authorities. Although the 1996 act defines an aviation accident as any aviation disaster without regard to cause or suspected cause and required the Board to respond - we would have under any circumstances - it was the right thing to do.

At no time in our history was it more important for all of government - at all levels - as well as the aviation community and other agencies to work together. And, fortunately, surviving family members were able to receive the support and assistance they needed because of the strong partnerships that had been forged long before these events occurred. We all must continue to work together - local communities, the air carriers, the airports, others in the aviation community, and the federal government to ensure that we are prepared for the next disaster.

To that end, the Board is developing a number of training courses at the NTSB Academy on family assistance issues. In December 2001, the Board's TDA staff presented its first academy course entitled " Family Assistance During Transportation Disasters." This course was well attended and received by a varied audience including representatives from industry, government agencies, and non-profit organizations. A significant number of Department of Defense (DoD) personnel also attended. The interest was so great that we were asked to develop a course specifically for DoD personnel. This course will be presented next fall. We will also offer a course this December for senior law enforcement officers who provide on-scene support to the Board. The Rhode Island State Police recommended such a course following the crash of EgyptAir flight 990. They felt that a better understanding of the needs of the Board and the concerns of the families would have helped law enforcement officers be more prepared.

No doubt, many challenges await us. The global nature of passenger transport requires all of us to work more closely together and to share lessons learned. We must ensure that everyone who travels on our transportation systems and their families receive the same level of assistance and support after an accident -- no matter where it occurs in the world. Family assistance is no longer just a U.S. initiative - as evidenced by the attendees at this conference. It is a worldwide initiative - one in which every country, every agency, and every transportation-related industry around the world must take an interest and be involved. To that end, each of those entities that deal with the traveling public should have a family assistance plan in place - if you don't already have one - now is the time to prepare it - not when you're confronted by an accident.

So I want to thank all of you for your efforts to ensure compassionate treatment of victims and their families following a transportation disaster. It is the right thing to do as government officials, members of the transportation community and as fellow human beings.