By Elias Kontanis, Chief, Transportation Disaster Assistance Division
Last year, for the first time, the international aviation community observed February 20th as the International Day Commemorating Air Crash Victims and Families. This year, on the second annual observance, we join in reflecting on the lives lost in aviation accidents as well as on the vigilance needed to ensure safety remains the priority in aviation.
As important as it is to commemorate, it is imperative that we also commit—commit to ensuring our programs effectively address the concerns of accident survivors and families and provide the information and support needed after tragedy happens.
The NTSB conducts its investigations with the goal of preventing future accidents. We do this work so that no other families must experience the painful loss or injury of loved ones due to transportation accidents. Our objective is, first and foremost, accident prevention. We maintain a steadfast commitment to this because we believe that the only acceptable number of deaths and serious injuries in all modes of transportation is zero.
With our commitment to transportation safety, we also have a commitment to support families by offering information about the NTSB’s investigative process, addressing their questions about the specific accident investigation involving their loved ones, and offering information about other services that may be available. The NTSB’s family assistance team does this every day, not only for aviation accidents but for all transportation accidents involving fatalities investigated by the NTSB. In 2022, our seven-member team provided support for 868 investigations, interacting with 3,480 accident survivors and family members.
The NTSB’s commitment to supporting transportation accident survivors and their family members is long-standing, spanning over 25 years. In that time, we have established some basic yet enduring principles:
- An independent and transparent safety investigation, with a focus on enhancing safety and not assigning blame or liability, is essential to the success of family assistance. Transparency and honesty fosters confidence.
- Rapport and credibility must be established with family members by communicating realistic expectations about the investigation and other aspects of the response. This includes clearly and appropriately communicating limits to the information and services available.
- A well-designed family assistance plan should be flexible and scalable. Rigid constructs break when they encounter an unanticipated force, but when the plan is flexible, it will bend and spring back to its original form when a stressor is applied.
- The entity responsible for coordinating the response should use a unified command concept of operations, enabling organizations to work together without giving up authority, responsibility, or accountability.
- A comprehensive response requires collaboration from multiple government agencies and nongovernmental organizations. Participating entities should focus on the fundamental concerns of families within the boundaries of their mandate and capabilities.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has spearheaded several initiatives to promote these principles among contracting states (that is, countries) by developing a 3-day course designed to provide governments, aircraft and airport operators, and other stakeholders the foundational knowledge to develop family assistance plans. Most recently, the European Civil Aviation Conference and the ICAO European and North Atlantic Regional Office have also jointly organized a workshop on assistance to aircraft accident victims and their families, which is scheduled for February 20, 2023, in Milan, Italy. This workshop will bring together representatives from several countries, family associations, and other stakeholders to share best practices.
Family assistance needs to be an organizational priority, ingrained in the culture and mindset of an entity engaging in this work. More than regulations, policies, standard operating procedures, or checklists, family assistance is about listening to and learning from those affected by disaster. Ultimately, family assistance is about caring for our fellow human beings and treating them with dignity and compassion, the same way we would expect to be treated when faced with an unexpected injury or loss of a loved one.
We stand with our international colleagues in honor of this solemn day, commemorating the lives lost and the families who faced such unimaginable tragedy, and we will not forget our commitments to them in the work we do.