(CNN, Feb. 25, 2014) — The U.S. Department of Transportation on Tuesday fined Asiana Airlines $500,000 for failing to assist families following the crash of Asiana flight 214 in San Francisco in July.
The Korean airline was slow to publicize a phone number for families, took two full days to successfully contact the families of three-quarters of the passengers and did not contact families of several passengers until five days following the crash, authorities said.
The half-million-dollar penalty is the first time the DOT has issued a fine under a 1997 law that requires airlines to adopt and adhere to a “family assistance plan” for major accidents.
Three of the 291 passengers were killed and scores were injured when the Boeing 777 struck the seawall at San Francisco International Airport and tumbled down the runway.
“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 a statement. “The last thing families and passengers should have to worry about at such a stressful time is how to get information from their carrier.”
In the DOT order, Asiana said its job was complicated by the limited number of workers at San Francisco’s airport and other circumstances. Injured passengers were sent to 13 different area hospitals, and there was no list prepared at the time to help the airline track passengers.
Hospitals also were reluctant to release information to the airline due to privacy laws, the airline said.
Asiana released a statement after the DOT fine was announced saying that it “provided extensive support to the passengers and their families following the accident and will continue to do so.”
Under the Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act of 1997, foreign air carriers assure the Department of Transportation and the National Transportation Safety Board that they will adhere to a “family assistance plan” in the event of aircraft accidents resulting in a major loss of life.
Among other things, airlines must publicize and staff a toll-free telephone number to take calls from families, notify families as soon as practical and commit sufficient resources to carry out the family assistance plan.
According to the DOT, Asiana failed to widely publicize any telephone number for family members of those on board, and the only number generally available to the public that family members could call was Asiana’s toll-free reservations line.
Asiana publicized a phone number established by another entity 18 hours and 32 minutes after the crash, the DOT said.
Locating this phone number on Asiana’s website required significant effort, the DOT said, and the reservations line did not include a separate menu option for calls related to the crash, requiring callers to navigate through cumbersome automated menus.
Asiana also took two days to send a sufficient number of trained personnel to San Francisco, and initially lacked an adequate number of staff able to communicate in the languages spoken by the flight’s passengers, the DOT said.
According to the DOT, $400,000 of the penalty is due within 30 days. Up to $100,000 will be spent on multiple industry-wide conferences and training sessions to provide others with lessons learned from the Asiana crash aftermath.