Air disaster renews debate over notification of families Victims' relatives accuse airlines of insensitivity

July 21, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In the aftermath of the destruction of Trans World Airlines Flight 800, a debate has been rekindled about whether American airline companies act quickly enough to notify the families of victims of air disasters.

Some relatives of passengers on the flight that left New York Wednesday night for Paris complained that TWA had been too slow to confirm for them whether their family members had been on board. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani also criticized TWA sharply and repeatedly, accusing airline officials first of leaving families in doubt for much too long, and then of lying to him about the reasons for their slow response.

"The upper management of TWA incompetently handled the notification process for the families," the mayor said Friday on his weekly radio show.

Airline officials contended that they had acted responsibly. They said that to avoid mistakes, they must painstakingly compare passenger lists with boarding passes.

"We're sorry the mayor is disappointed," said Mark Abels, a TWA vice president and spokesman. "We agree wholeheartedly with him that we wish we could do it faster, but we are a little more interested in doing it right."

Similar criticism has been heard in recent years from relatives of victims of other airline disasters. The sense among many families that various airlines have been insensitive in the hours and days after air disasters has coalesced into an informal movement.

Associations of relatives of victims in 10 major air crashes have formed the National Air Disaster Alliance and Foundation, which has been lobbying for a system that would give federal officials the power to call in the Red Cross to deal with the families immediately after a crash.

Vicki Cummack, president of an association of families that lost relatives on the Pan American flight that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, said there is an inherent conflict of interest after an air disaster, with the victims' families left "in the hands of the people who killed them."

Some of the family members noted with frustration that Congress passed a bill in 1990 that requires American airline companies to provide a passenger manifest to the State Department within three hours of an air disaster outside the United States.

But the law is not yet in effect, because the federal Department of Transportation has not adopted rules to enforce the provision.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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