WASHINGTON — Asiana Airlines has been penalized $500,000 for failing to assist family members of passengers on Flight 214, which crashed last year at San Francisco airport, the Transportation Department announced Tuesday.
The penalty — the first under the federal law requiring assistance after a crash — was assessed because the airline, based in South Korea, failed to adhere to its family-assistance program after the July 6 crash in San Francisco that killed three people, according to the department.
The fine is the first against an airline under the Federal Air Carrier Family Support Act of 1997. Foreign airlines are supposed to publicize and staff a reliable toll-free phone number for relatives of passengers to get information after a crash.
Asiana took two full days to successfully contact the families of just three-quarters of the passengers, according to the department. The families of several passengers were not contacted until five days following the crash, the department said.
"In the very rare event of a crash, airlines have a responsibility to provide their full support to help passengers and their families by following all the elements of their family assistance plans," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in announcing the fine. "The last thing families and passengers should have to worry about at such a stressful time is how to get information from their carrier."
Spokesmen for Asiana didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
But in the seven-page consent agreement for the fine, Asiana said it had 12 employees on duty at San Francisco, and that personnel from Los Angeles drove eight hours to help them.
United Airlines, Asiana's partner in the USA, helped house passengers and relatives of passengers in the immediate aftermath of the crash. Asiana's chief executive officer arrived in San Francisco on July 9, and Asiana argued that his presence until July 27 ensured that families and passengers would receive premier assistance.
Asiana said it faced challenges reaching passengers and their relatives because tickets were purchased through travel agents. But Asiana said it set up a 24-hour family assistance desk, that passengers were provided food and clothing, and that crisis counseling was provided by the Red Cross.
But the department found that for approximately one day following the crash, Asiana failed to widely publicize any telephone number for family members of those onboard, and the number available was a reservations line.
The reservations line did not include a separate menu option for calls related to the crash, and callers were required to navigate through cumbersome automated menus before being connected to an Asiana employee, according to the department.
Asiana also lacked translators and personnel trained in crash response, the transportation department found.
The penalty includes a $400,000 fine and $100,000 credited to Asiana for costs in sponsoring conferences and training sessions in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
In the late 1990s, after airlines were roundly criticized for ignoring desperate requests for information after crashes, Congress required carriers to dedicate significant attention to families of passengers.
Last fall, The Associated Press reviewed plans filed by two dozen foreign airlines and found cases in which carriers had not updated their family assistance plans as required.
Since AP's story, several airlines have updated family assistance plans and filed new paperwork with the Department of Transportation. Among them is Asiana's bigger rival, Korean Air.