Poor Asian transportation disaster response could impact U.S. aviation business

As President Barack Obama continues his strategic “Pivot to Asia,” away from the Middle East, we must include in that pivot a demand that countries and companies doing business in the region embrace a more thoughtful emergency response that mirrors the openness and best practices standards of the Western world. Specifically, we must ensure that extensive and detailed family assistance plans are proactively in place prior to a major transportation disaster.

The missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the sinking of the MV Sewol are stark reminders of just how far many countries in that region and around the world have yet to travel to reach minimally acceptable standards in addressing families’ needs after such tragic accidents. We continue to see families protesting and attacking the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing and even demanding answers from the Chicago headquartered aircraft manufacturer Boeing. In South Korea, families were traumatized even further when several of the bodies of teenage victims from MV Sewol were returned to the wrong families.

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As the former Director of Government, Public and Family Affairs at the National Transportation Safety Board, I have personally seen how grieved the victims’ families can be when the remains and personal effects of their loved ones are mishandled. Between 1994 and 1996, there were four major transportation accidents in the United States, which killed a total of 540 people.  Similar to what we have seen in both Malaysia and now in South Korea, the U.S. emergency response teams on occasion lacked organization, coordination, and even compassion.

In answering families’ cries for assistance, Congress passed the 1996 Family Assistance Act and subsequently, the 1997 Foreign Air Carrier Act. I served as a core member in the development of the NTSB’s family assistance program, which is still in effect to this day in the U.S.

The operation we designed harnesses the assets and capabilities of the federal government to work in cooperative coordination with emergency responders and the local medical examiner or coroner, whose responsibility it is to recover and identify victims. Since the passage of the Family Assistance Act, the NTSB’s program has been considered the gold standard.

As U.S. interests pivot East, the region as well as American companies doing business there should look West and adopt the standards established by the family assistance programs already adopted in countries including Australia, Canada, Brazil, throughout the European Union and of course, the U.S.  While having such a comprehensive plan in place would not have located MH370 any faster or changed the likely criminal actions of the captain of the MV Sewol, a plan would have provided some measure of relief and not exacerbated the unthinkable sadness and grief for those who lost loved ones.

A tremendous amount is at stake in Asia for the American aircraft manufacturing industry if it fails to adequately address the needs and concerns of the MH370 families head-on.  This is primarily due to the information void caused by the still missing Boeing 777 aircraft and complicated further by Malaysia’s former prime minister blaming Boeing for its disappearance.  While clearly this is a blatantly unfair overstatement at this point in the investigation, the fact remains for Boeing that Malaysia, and Asian region public opinion for that matter, both are turning against Boeing very quickly.  It would be sensible for Boeing to take a pro-active role with the families as part of an overall reputational risk management strategy.

The reasons why this is important are clearly stated in a Boeing market report released in February 2014.  In the report, Boeing predicts that the demand for new airplanes in the Asia Pacific region will grow exponentially over the next 20 years. Boeing also estimates the region's airlines will need an additional 12,820 airplanes valued at $1.9 trillion, representing 36 percent of the world's new airplane deliveries over the next two decades.  However, should Boeing’s reputation with Asian governments and their publics erode due to their perceived mishandling of their response to MH370 families, Boeing could face potentially significant losses in market share within this critical region.

Both countries and companies must no longer view family assistance as reactionary but must bring the development and improvement of family assistance plans to the forefront of their strategy.  If they do not prepare adequately, they too could become an unwilling participant on the next global stage where families’ horrific reactions and outrage on disaster are broadcasted internationally.


Jamie Finch served in the Clinton administration as director of Government, Public and Family Affairs at NTSB, where he led family assistance and communications operations for multiple aviation disasters, including TWA 800. Currently he is a partner at Seward Square Group LLC, a government relations and consulting firm based in Washington, D.C