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Tuesday, September 29, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Law Spurs Airlines To Aid Families After Major Disaster

Seattle Times Aerospace Reporter

WASHINGTON - Much has changed in the way airlines and government agencies deal with family members after an air crash, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report released yesterday.

The NTSB said the issuance last year of its Family Assistance Plan for Aviation Disasters and the Family Assistance Acts of 1996 and 1997 helped create solutions to the chaos that often followed crashes such as that of TWA Flight 800 in 1996.

"The recent crash of Swissair Flight 111 proved the validity of this requirement" that airlines have a crash plan, NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said in a speech yesterday.

"If you have read the media accounts in the aftermath of this accident, I'm sure you were struck, as I was, by the overwhelmingly positive response of the families to the airlines' efforts," Hall said.

Unlike a few years ago, the conduct of airlines and government agencies after a major air crash today is mandated by law and overseen by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Airlines have submitted for approval detailed plans about how they intend to deal with family members - in nearly every respect, including the identification and handling of human remains, notification of next of kin, grief counseling, memorial services, monuments and the handling and return of personal effects.

The government has defined responsibilities, too, in overseeing the coordination of recovery efforts and the accommodation of relatives of those involved in a crash. Along with clearer lines of authority, federal agencies now have memoranda of understanding defining the cooperation necessary after a crash - treaties, essentially, to avoid turf wars.

At the gathering of more than 500 people for a symposium on family assistance after transportation accidents, Jeff Morgan, Delta's chief of emergency response, said the airline had an informal disaster-response plan in place after crashes in the 1980s.

Delta Airlines, a Swissair partner that had booked more than 50 of the passengers, assisted Swissair at that crash off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada.

"While U.S. law did not require either Swissair or Delta to meet the requirements of either Family Assistance Act . . . both Swissair and Delta surpassed the requirements of U.S. law in assisting the families of victims," said the NTSB report.

When Hall became NTSB chairman in 1994, he was hearing something quite different when air-crash family members related their experiences.

"They told me 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 being handled with dignity and the use of confidential information obtained during the grieving process in the litigation that inevitably followed," Hall said.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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