In an unprecedented move, federal transportation officials penalized Asiana Airlines $500,000 Tuesday for failing to adequately help victims and their families in the aftermath of the South Korean airline's fatal July 6 crash at San Francisco International Airport.
The announcement from the U.S. Department of Transportation vindicated the frustrations of victims' families who were unable to get information about their loved ones directly from Asiana. Some families were not contacted by the airline until five days after the crash, and the airline was so slow in setting up an emergency phone number that relatives were forced to go through a cumbersome reservation line to reach an employee.
"Until you've lived it, could you imagine if your wife and child, parents and brothers and sisters are on an aircraft and your sole source of information is CNN, which is replaying the footage again and again and again of an airplane cartwheeling down the runway, and not having any access to information?" asked Walnut Creek attorney Michael Verna, who filed the first lawsuit on behalf of victims after the crash.
Asiana must pay $400,000 in penalties within 30 days and spend up to another $100,000 to sponsor airline industry conferences and training through 2015 "to provide lessons learned," the Transportation Department said in announcing its groundbreaking fines Tuesday.
It was the first fine issued under a 1997 law that requires foreign air carriers to provide various services to passengers and their families after an airline disaster. According to federal transportation officials, the requirements include staffing and publicizing a reliable, toll-free telephone number to take calls from families; notifying families "as soon as practicable"; and committing "sufficient resources" to help families.
Asiana did not set up a reliable toll-free number for passengers' families until 18 hours and 32 minutes after the crash, transportation officials found. The airline also initially failed to commit enough staff to communicate with passengers and their families, most of whom were from China and South Korea, federal officials said. It then took Asiana two days to send "a sufficient number of trained personnel" to San Francisco.
"The last thing families and passengers should have to worry about at such a stressful time is how to get information from their carrier," U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.
Asiana told U.S. authorities its efforts were hampered, in part, by the 16-hour time difference between San Francisco and Seoul.
In a statement to this newspaper, Asiana said it "provided extensive support to the passengers and their families following the accident and will continue to do so."
After a nearly 11-hour flight from Seoul, the Boeing 777 slammed into a sea wall at the head of an SFO runway, sending the plane careening into a 330-degree spin before it burst into flames. Three teenage girls were killed and an estimated 200 of the 307 passengers and crew were injured.
Asiana still faces the outcome of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation that increasingly has pointed to pilot error, in addition to a growing docket of victims' lawsuits headed toward federal trial in Oakland. The federal fine has no bearing on the NTSB investigation nor on the civil lawsuits.
Even relatives who were at the airport July 6 were frustrated by the lack of information from Asiana, Verna said. One of his clients, Hector Machorro Jr., was waiting for his wife and son to land when he saw television coverage of the crash as he walked past an airport bar.
For hours, Verna said, Machorro was "frantic" waiting for any word about his family.
Machorro's wife eventually contacted him at the airport from San Francisco General Hospital, where she had been taken for treatment.
Machorro never heard from Asiana until several days later, when an employee called to ask about a potential claim against the airline, Verna said.
"Asiana, or their insurers, were already in the mode of how to cap their loss and exposure in the case rather than serving the needs of the people who were thrust out of their airplane because they couldn't figure out how to land it," Verna said.
Anthony Tarricone, whose law firm represents the families of the dead girls, said in an email to this newspaper that he hopes the fine helps prepare "all air carriers to meet their important obligations to the flying public and their families."
While transportation officials found fault with Asiana's response to the crash, Tarricone said, "in the weeks that followed, Asiana Airlines made efforts to be responsive to the needs of our many clients -- providing necessary medical treatment and other support. We trust they will continue to address the needs of those injured in the crash."
Contact Dan Nakaso at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/dannakaso.