NEW YORK -- Under a plan filed three months ago with U.S. transportation authorities, Swissair officials promised to set up a toll-free hotline for concerned relatives in the event of a major air disaster, swiftly compile a detailed passenger list and even erect a monument to the deceased.
The airline was forced to put that plan into action yesterday after the crash of Flight 111 in Nova Scotia. Disaster officials said the plan, which was required by a new federal law, enabled Swissair and its partner airline, Delta, to avoid the pitfalls experienced by TWA during its awkward handling of the Flight 800 crash off Long Island in 1996.
"There's no comparison," said Jerry Hauer, who heads New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's office of emergency management. "The Swissair and Delta folks have done a really wonderful job in mobilizing their forces. They were clearly prepared to deal with this. They had plans in place, they knew what they needed to do and they went out and did it."
Two years ago, Giuliani led critics who said TWA caused additional anguish by failing to provide key information to the families of Flight 800. The airline, for example, was unable to produce an accurate passenger list until late the following day, causing scores of confused relatives to descend on an ad-hoc command post at the Ramada Plaza hotel outside John F. Kennedy International Airport.
By contrast, the scene was calm yesterday at the same Ramada, where Giuliani and Red Cross crisis specialists spent the night counseling a handful of families. Many relatives decided to stay away from the airport because they already were getting information from hundreds of operators provided by Swissair and Delta over a toll-free number (1-800-801-0088). Swissair issued four press releases yesterday and set up an emergency Web site on the Internet.
Relatives of the victims of TWA 800 helped write the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996. It was extended to foreign carriers such as Swissair last year. The DOT said nearly 98 percent of all carriers operating in the US have complied with the law, which also helps coordinate communication between the airlines and various government agencies following a disaster.
Starting Oct. 1, in an effort to speed up communication even further, the DOT will require airlines to collect not only the full names of every American passenger but also a contact name and phone number.
"There will never be anything like TWA 800 again," said a senior Transportation official.
Because Wednesday's crash occurred outside the United States, Swissair was not legally required to implement its Family Assistance Plan. However, its actions indicated that it had immediately put the plan into action.
By midnight yesterday, nearly 100 Delta agents were stationed inside Terminal 3 at JFK. The agents directed about five families who showed up during the night to the Ramada, where they received immediate counseling. The toll-free number was activated shortly after. Meanwhile, NTSB and Swissair officials communicated constantly over a separate 24-hour emergency telephone line that had already been put in place.
Most important, Swissair provided an accurate passenger list to the State Department and local officials by 3 a.m. The State Department immediately was able to contact U.S. consulates in Switzerland and Canada. The airline immediately dispatched President and CEO Jeffrey Katz to Halifax with an emergency response team that arrived early yesterday afternoon.
"I know [the airlines] are trying to make this process as least painful as possible," said Shelly Auster, a spokesman for the American Red Cross. "You don't want to leave anyone in the dark. The family members are the most important people here, and you want to do everything you can to make a tragic situation less difficult."
"It's important to get out in front of these things and respond to the needs of the families," said Hauer, the aide to Giuliani. "Being in a state of suspended animation, not knowing if a loved one is on a flight, it adds to the pain and the longer that goes on the more painful it is."
Pub Date: 9/04/98