Imposing the first penalty of its type, the federal government has fined Asiana Airlines $500,000 for failing to promptly help passengers and their families after last year's crash in San Francisco.
A U.S. Department of Transportation investigation found that the South Korean airline violated the Foreign Air Carrier Family Support Act by taking up to five days to notify family members and failing to provide other basic assistance.
In a statement issued Tuesday, federal officials said Asiana did not "adhere to the assurances in its family assistance plan," a federally mandated set of procedures foreign airlines must follow to promptly assist passengers and their families after major aircraft incidents.
The agency said it took Asiana days to do such things as contacting family members, sending trained personnel and translators to San Francisco, and providing a phone number with information on the crash.
Three people were killed and more than 180 passengers and crew members injured when Asiana's Boeing 777 clipped a sea wall on July 6 and slammed into a runway at San Francisco International Airport. An investigation into the cause of the crash is ongoing.
According to the Department of Transportation investigation, the airline took two days to successfully contact three-quarters of passengers' families and up to five days to contact several others.
Transportation officials said the airline took a day just to provide family members a telephone number for information. Before that, the only number generally available was a toll-free reservation line.
Federal officials said it also took two days after the crash for the airline to send enough trained staff and translators to San Francisco. Flight 214 originated in Seoul, and many of the 307 passengers and crew members aboard were from China or South Korea.
Overall, investigators said, five days passed before Asiana could get the necessary resources to carry out its response plan.
"The last thing families and passengers should have to worry about at such a stressful time is how to get information from their carrier," Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said in the statement
Asiana Airlines said in a statement that it provided "extensive support to the passengers and their families following the accident and will continue to do so."
The fine was imposed under a consent order, which is a legal settlement with the federal government that describes the facts uncovered by the investigation and the reason for penalizing Asiana.
Without conceding any violation and to avoid litigation, airline officials signed the order, which requires Asiana to avoid any future violations of the family support act.
Under the agreement, Asiana will pay $400,000 within 30 days and be credited $100,000 for its costs to sponsor industrywide conferences about the lessons the airline learned from the crash.
The order states that Asiana takes its family assistance responsibilities seriously and acknowledges the difficulties fulfilling its legal obligations. Company officials said they tried to provide assistance immediately after the crash, but because of the Fourth of July holiday weekend, only 12 airline employees were on duty in San Francisco.
According to the order, Asiana officials believe the presence of the airline's chief executive on the scene a few days after the crash ensured that passengers and families received the help required by law and expected of a premier airline and a good corporate citizen.
Asiana officials also told investigators that it had few people in the United States trained to handle post-accident responsibilities and had to rely on its domestic airline partner for assistance. It took two days to get fully trained people to the airport and five days for Asiana to assume full responsibility for assisting the relatives of passengers.
Dozens of passengers who were aboard the flight have taken steps toward lawsuits against the airline and Boeing Co., the plane's manufacturer. The families of the three teenagers who were killed also have retained attorneys.