Published in June 2016 issue

Although flying is one of the safest modes of transportation, accidents do occur. When they do, the aftermath is devastating.

By Ken Jenkins

With today´s 24-hour media access, we are bombarded by images of twisted metal, debris, and personal belongings smoldering away in a seemingly endless nightmare. Aviation disasters are like no other. The sudden loss of life gives rise to emotions that are both powerful and unfamiliar. How do survivors and family members absorb this horrific experience into their lives? Each person is different in how they handle their grief, but in the end, they all share one common feature. Resilience.

For commercial airline carriers flying in and out of the United States, providing family assistance was mandated in late 1996. When responding to an aviation disaster, the provision of family assistance is a delicate process. It is an intuitive balance between the sometimes insensitive procedures and regulations and the dramatic variables of emotions and obstacles. Through my experiences, I have found that people can handle the truth regardless of how difficult it is to hear. Often, it is our own fear that stops us from sharing difficult news because we do not want to bring additional pain to the survivor or the family. However, when we are not transparent and do not share the information that the family so desperately wants, what we are doing is adding more pain.

As human beings responding to people who have experienced an aviation accident, or have lost a family member because of one, the most compassionate act we can perform is being empathetic—and, most of all, honest.

As a former care team member and leader, I have seen the best of humanity: hundreds of team members willing to put their fear aside to help people they have never met during one of the most difficult times in their lives. I have witnessed people who have lost a loved one or survived a horrific plane crash open their hearts for help.

The family assistance legislation mandated in 1996 came to be in the wake of a number of high-profile accidents that revealed shortcomings in airline family assistance: the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, US Air 5050, US Air 405, US Air 427, American Eagle 4184, Valujet 592, and TWA 800. The families said that the airlines’ responses had made their loss even worse.


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This led to the creation of family advocacy groups, which lobbied Congress for legislation to change how airlines should, and would, respond in the aftermath of a disaster. Because of the strength, courage, and resilience of these survivors and family members, the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 was signed by President Bill Clinton on September 6, 1996.

The act was designed to ensure a coordinated response from the airline involved in the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the American Red Cross, the US Department of State, and a number of other agencies. In addition, the federal Family Assistance Plan for Aviation Disasters specifies victim support tasks to be performed by seven organizations in the aftermath of an air disaster (www. ntsb.gov). The act gives permission to the aviation industry to talk about accidents—specifically, how to respond to them.

The goal: to provide information and access to services for families and survivors, as quickly as possible, and lessen the pain that family members and survivors of accidents had previously experienced.

Until the act was signed in 1996, most airlines simply had family assistance plans written in their policies and procedures manuals. To my knowledge, until American Airlines (AA) began its family assistance program in 1993, there was no formal, active educational training scheme within the airline industry. What I do know is that the survivors and family members of aviation accidents spoke loud and clear, demanding change in how airlines responded to accidents. Today, there is some form of aviation family assistance legislation in Australia, Brazil, China, the European Union, and Korea. In addition, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) have policy documents and guidelines pertaining to family assistance in aviation disasters.

Over the years, I have learned many aspects of emergency response, from developing checklists, to creating exercises and drills, to organizing an efficient team structure. The one aspect of responding to mass casualty events I did not learn from a book or a class is how resilient and courageous human beings are in times of crisis.

I have witnessed victims’ family members and survivors choose to use their personal experience to enhance postcrisis management policy and procedures for future aviation accident victims and their families. I have been privileged to work with many of these individuals over the years and I am grateful for their dedication to post-crisis management and family assistance.

They are a true testimony of resilience, courage, and survival.