By Elias Kontanis, Chief, NTSB Transportation Disaster Assistance Division
This year, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) designated February 20 the International Day Commemorating Air Crash Victims and Families. Although ICAO has addressed various aspects of family assistance for decades, this is the first time a day has been set aside to remember and honor all who lost their lives in air disasters and their families.
ICAO’s interest in family assistance dates to 1976, with the inclusion of a recommended practice in Annex 13, the document that outlines standards and recommended practices for accident investigations. The following is a brief timeline of significant ICAO activities related to family assistance.
- 1976: Contracting States (that is, countries) whose citizens are involved in a crash are granted access to information about the crash investigation and play a direct role in identifying their citizens. This recommended practice was strengthened to a standard in 2001.
- 1998: The ICAO Assembly acknowledges that “the policy of the ICAO should be to ensure that the mental, physical and spiritual well-being of victims involved in civil aviation accidents and their families are considered and accommodated by ICAO and its Contracting States.”
- 2001: In response to Assembly Resolution A32-7, ICAO issues Circ 285, “Guidance on Assistance to Aircraft Accident Victims and their Families,” a keystone document for countries interested in developing family assistance programs. Circ 285 provides guidance on the various aspects of a comprehensive family assistance operation.
- 2005: Provisions are included in Annex 9, “Facilitation,” to enable victims’ family members to expeditiously enter the State in which the accident occurred. Additional provisions address repatriation of remains and emergency travel documents for family members and accident survivors.
- 2013: ICAO issues Doc 9998, “ICAO Policy on Assistance to Aircraft Accident Victims and Their Families,” and Doc 9973, “Manual on Assistance to Aircraft Accident Victims and Their Families.”
- 2015: Annex 9 is further amended with Recommended Practice 8.46, which encourages Contracting States to establish legislation, regulations, and/or policies in support of assistance to aircraft accident victims and their families.
- 2021: ICAO convenes its first International Symposium on Assistance to Aircraft Accident Victims and Their Families. This 3-day event, hosted by the governments of Spain and the Canary Islands, provides an opportunity for participants to share best practices and lessons learned to support the development of family assistance programs. NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy and I were honored to participate as guest speakers at this important event.
- 2021: ICAO’s Global Aviation Training Section begins developing a 3-day course designed to provide Contracting States, as well as aircraft and airport operators, the foundational knowledge to develop family assistance plans. The NTSB is a proud partner in this effort.
- 2021: ICAO proposes elevating Recommended Practice 8.46 to a standard and developing a new recommended practice encouraging aircraft and airport operators to develop family assistance plans. Again, the United States stands with a significant number of other States in support of this initiative.
Through the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996, the United States committed to addressing the needs of passengers’ families following an aviation disaster. This commitment continues to grow. Today, the NTSB is the lead federal agency responsible for coordinating federal resources to support the families of air crash victims, as well as the victims of any other transportation disaster the NTSB investigates.
As family assistance specialists, my team and I work every day with the families of those lost in transportation crashes, trying to shed what light we can during some of their darkest days. We provide information during a time of uncertainty, address questions, and facilitate access to services that help loved ones navigate the loss they have suffered.
We have this charge in common with family assistance specialists all around the world, and we work collaboratively with international colleagues to enhance family assistance programs worldwide. We offer representatives of ICAO Contracting States seats in our family assistance course to help them develop or enhance their family assistance programs. We deliver presentations and participate in discussion panels overseas on family assistance, and we assist ICAO in developing its 3-day family assistance course.
Over the decades, the strength of survivors and victims’ families has humbled us. We have seen them organize not only to support each other through the grieving process, but also to advocate for change to enhance transportation safety so that others never have to face the same kind of loss.
We at the NTSB stand alongside our international colleagues in honoring the International Day Commemorating Air Crash Victims and Families. No traveler likes to ponder the possibility, however remote, that a flight will crash. But, if the unthinkable happens, the NTSB and our counterparts around the globe are dedicated to supporting crash survivors and family members.
 International Civil Aviation Organization. Assembly Resolution A32-7. Resolutions Adopted at the 32nd Session of the Assembly. Montreal, Quebec; Sept. 22–Oct. 2, 1998.