For the past 3+ years I have had the opportunity and privilege to work for a US airlines, responsible for their Business Continuity and Emergency Preparedness programs.
Emergency Preparedness for airlines is a completely different animal than what most of us are used to. An airline’s Emergency Preparedness program is focused on one particular event – an airplane accident. Rules, regulations and guidelines issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 stipulate exactly what is expected from airlines in their response to an accident resulting in the deaths of some or all of their passengers.
Airlines are required to immediately lock down all records and documentation that has anything to do with the aircraft(s) and personnel who operate and/or maintain the aircraft(s); immediately perform drug testing on all surviving individuals who may have operated or maintained the aircraft(s); make available a team of experts on the operation and maintenance of the aircraft(s) involved to assist the NTSB in its investigation of the cause of the accident; and, most importantly, provide immediate care and assistance to the families of the passengers and crew aboard the aircraft(s).
These requirements make it essential that airlines can quickly notify and mobilize a large number of employees (depending on the size of the aircraft(s) involved in the incident) to the accident site (or as close to the site as possible), for employees involved in the investigation; near the accident site, for families to gather, a little distanced from the actual site; at the originating and destination airports, where family members may already be or may originally gather; and, perhaps, at upline and downline airports for passengers that had connecting flights.
The operating airline must provide resources and accommodations for a number of governmental and other support organizations (NTSB, American Red Cross, FEMA and others) to set up operations near the crash site; provide accommodations and transportation for all families who wish to travel to the nearby site location, as well as to provide compassionate assistance to families who decide to remain in their home locations.
There are other requirements regarding the dissemination and security of information released to agencies, families, the media and the general public; investigation logistics; legal matters and other concerns.
The airline must also concern themselves with the fact that now that they have a large number of their employees dedicated to the accident response for days, weeks and in some cases, months, they still have an airline to safely operate with a now depleted workforce who is likely stressed and emotionally impacted by the event.
Without getting into the gory details about how all of this works and the challenges the airlines face, suffice it to say, this requires a lot of planning, education and testing of the process and procedures. Those employees who volunteer to assist in providing family care must be trained and participate in annual refresher courses. Those employees targeted to manage the response process in the airline’s Corporate Command Center and at the accident site, must be trained and participate in annual exercises. Station management and staff, any of whom might be called on to set up Family Assistance Centers at their airport must be trained and tested in their responsibilities. All, a huge undertaking. And all what makes Emergency Preparedness a different animal at airlines.
Whereas most airlines have a relatively well developed and rehearsed Emergency Preparedness program for this specific incident, I found that they do not have very well developed or rehearsed programs for any other kind of incident that may impact their ability to operate the airlines. Emergency Preparedness for them has become very myopic. But, that is fodder for another blog on another day.