AIN Blog: Torqued: Emergency Plans Are Not Just for the Big Guys

 - March 26, 2012, 11:15 AM

Everyone agrees that airlines and major corporations need plans for deploying an emergency response in the event of an accident. The airlines, especially, are acutely aware of the intense media and regulatory scrutiny–and lawsuits–that follow any aviation disaster, especially one that involves substantial loss of life. All major airlines and large corporations have aviation accident response plans. Corporate counsel has seen to that. But it’s not just the big guys who need emergency plans. After all, accidents can and do affect the 99 percent

Take the requirements of the federal family assistance plan. This law grew out of the frustration and despair of family members in the wake of a number of airline disasters, including Pan Am 103 and ValuJet. But it was the TWA 800 disaster in 1996–after which victims’ families suffered the anguish of being unable to get immediate, reliable information on what happened, who was on board and the status of any survivors (there were none)–that finally prompted Congress to act. 

Among other things, these family assistance plans are intended to ensure accurate passenger manifests so that airlines can make timely notification to victims’ families. I have talked to scores of relatives of mass airline disasters, such as USAir 427, ValuJet and TWA 800, who have told me that the anguish of suspecting, but not knowing for sure, that family members are among the victims is almost as unbearable as ultimately finding out that they are.

Notification Plans

In the event of an accident, accurate passenger lists with identification of all crew and passengers are just as important for GA and smaller corporate operators, as is information on the identity of next of kin to allow their prompt notification. I cannot count the number of GA accidents that occurred while I was an NTSB Member where identifying the people on board proved difficult, and made timely notification of family members impossible.

One case in particular stands out in my mind. This fatal crash involved a single pilot. All the paperwork on the flight indicated a name other than the name on the pilot’s certificate. Turns out the pilot never liked his given name and used a totally unrelated nickname. It took more than half a day to figure out the victim’s real name, causing untold agony to his family and friends who were awaiting confirmation, but nonetheless hoping against hope that it wasn’t him. 

Good Plans Incorporate a Dry Run

Aside from next-of-kin notification, corporate operators of all sizes need an emergency response plan that addresses all the same issues as the plans the majors have in place. For example, important notifications need to be made to key corporate personnel, the NTSB, insurance carriers and legal counsel in a timely manner. A disaster is not the time to figure out who needs to be notified and who is responsible for making those notifications. A number of organizations provide sample emergency response plans with suggested best practices.  NBAA, IS-BOA, Argus and others have developed excellent models. But it is still up to individual operators to adopt, implement and test their plans regularly to ensure that they are current and effective for their particular operations.

Having an emergency plan in the first place is important, but it also needs to be practiced regularly. Some companies do a great job of preparing beautifully detailed plans that then just gather dust on a shelf. A plan is only as good as its ability to be carried out in the event of an actual emergency.

Companies of every size can carry out simulated real-life drills. A drill I recently participated in quickly demonstrated a problem with the company’s emergency plan, and without the drill it probably would have gone unnoticed. When the simulated call went in to the corporate offices that one of their airplanes was missing, the company was prepared with a 24-hour hotline in its aviation department, staffed by two people on a rotating basis. So far, so good. Now here’s the rub. The first corporate officer who was designated to be notified was, in the drill, on the missing airplane and no alternative had been named in the plan. So, right from the outset there was confusion about whom to call. Not a good start in the event of a real emergency.

Emergency planning for a corporation whose primary activity is not aviation means making sure that corporate security, HR and legal departments, among others, are included in the disaster-response plans. These departments might have little experience with aviation and might need to refer to outside experts for assistance. For example, inside counsel might have to have after-hours arrangements in place with outside aviation counsel to be able to address important legal concerns outside their areas of expertise.  After all, accidents do not always occur on weekdays between 9 and 5.

And emergency planning includes more than just what happens after a disaster. It also includes consideration of whether senior officials should even fly together. This problem was exemplified by a corporate accident that occurred while I was at the NTSB. The entire senior management team of a regional store chain was killed when their turbine-powered business aircraft crashed. The company was a family-run business, so the accident not only devastated the extended family of the victims but also took out the entire leadership team. The company had been in the midst of a major expansion but the loss of so many top execs was too much. I later learned that the company had to be sold. An emergency plan that addressed which senior managers could and could not travel together would not have prevented the heartache of losing family members but it might have prevented the heartache of losing the family business.

So my recommendation is to pick a model plan, enhance it so it becomes your own and fits your operation and then practice it at least once a year. And, if you have a safety management system (no matter whether you’re an airline or a large or small corporate operator) make sure your emergency response plan is integrated with your SMS.