The importance of implementing family assistance plans at airports

Posted: 14 September 2022 | | No comments yet

After the Red Air flight that caught fire at Miami International Airport when its landing gear collapsed on the runway, Monica Maccaferri, Emergency Team Coordinator at Bologna International Airport speaks to International Airport Review about why airports should implement a family assistance plan and why well-trained staff can help ensure respectful and dignified treatment of victims and their families and increase resilience.

Air accidents are the dark side of aviation, unpredictable and not completely preventable, despite all industry efforts to make flying safer. Airport contingency plans should be supplemented by a family assistance plan to ensure respectful and dignified treatment of passengers and families who see their lives completely changed in an instant. 

No matter how much the transport industry is focused on achieving the highest level of safety, air accidents are unfortunately a threatening reality. Passengers may turn into victims in a snap, nonetheless they remain passengers, with inalienable and fundamental rights that shall be guaranteed.

Firstly, everything possible has to be done to increase the chances of surviving, second they and their family must treated in a respectful and dignified manner, and receive all the information they need in an accurate and timely manner. This is family assistance. Promoted thanks to the tireless work done by the International Federation of Victims, it is governed by ICAO document 9998 and the related 9973 guidance material, in which the states, airlines and airports are called upon to develop specific family assistance plans, each one for its own area of competence.  

The first ICAO symposium in the history of civil aviation, the Symposium on Assistance to Aircraft Accident Victims and their Families, hosted by the Spanish government, was held in December 2021 in Gran Canaria; it was attended by ICAO and its state members, IATA, ACI World and numerous other industry professionals, each for their own areas of expertise, such as insurers and aircraft accident investigators and has been a milestone in which commitments were outlined for future developments in this field. 

The role of the airport

As indicated in ICAO policy and its guidance material on family assistance DOC 9998 and 9973, airports are among the actors called upon to implement a victim assistance plan. They play a fundamental role in the first 12-24 hours, even if the accident does not occur within its borders, as it is the place where the relatives of the victims go to obtain information about their loved ones.

I still remember the words of two women who suffered a plane crash. They were two different accidents, at different airports, and with different statuses. One was a passenger on a crashed flight, the other the daughter of a person who died in the crash: “The accident was horrible, but the way we were treated at the airport was even worse”, and “At the airport they looked at us as if we were intruders to be removed as soon as possible, but we were just looking for information.”

During an accident airports must manage the accident and the needs of passengers and their families affected by it, and manage the needs of their normal passengers. They have different requirements, different types of communication, different emotional waves.

Family assistance plans

The management of an air crash accident is much more challenging, as it touches deep emotional aspects such as grief, death – subjects that even in everyday life can be difficult to deal with. The preparation of an airport family assistance plan, and the verification of its functioning during emergency drills, allows the airport to be prepared for such an event and staff are trained to handle the emotional impact. The first step to set up a family assistance plan is to identify dedicated reception rooms, places that have to be protected and separated from the locations where other passengers and their families are; here the families and friends of victims can receive updates on the course of the incident management and also receive emotional assistance provided by counsellors, or by faith ministers.

The preparation of an airport family assistance plan, and the verification of its functioning during emergency drills, allows the airport to be prepared for such an event and staff are trained to handle the emotional impact”

In addition, it is necessary to prepare a room for injured passengers waiting to be transported to the hospitals, and another different room to accommodate the uninjured passengers. The separation of passengers according to degree of severity, carried out by medical personnel, contributes to the optimisation of medical resources and can help to increase the probability of survival of victims, according to the principles of disaster medicine. In addition to these rooms, it is also important to provide a reunion room, where victims who can go home can reunite with their families in a private place without mixing with other passengers.

Privacy of these rooms should always be guaranteed. A communication plan should also be prepared, including templates and definition of communication time and place, taking into account websites, social media, newspapers, conferences, etc.

Dissemination of information

Including an ICAO-compliant family care plan in the airport’s emergency plan and testing it regularly is the best guarantee of putting passengers first, not only in peacetime, but also when catastrophic, but not unforeseen, events occur”

Regardless of how fast the images and videos of the incident spread on social media, correct and timely information should always be in the hands of experts and helps boost the confidence of victims and their families that they are ‘in good hands’, as well as preserve the reputation of the airport. The training of the personnel called upon to manage the emergency rooms is of paramount importance. They must know the language to use, to recognise the cultural needs, and how to perform their tasks with people under great stress and suffering and who may behave unexpectedly. Stress can manifest itself in different ways and some people may react with great calm or with great agitation.

Preparation will also help to protect airport staff, learn how to develop strategies to cope with the critical situation they are facing. The implementation of a Critical Incident Stress Management programme would be very useful to mitigate the impact of a critical event before stress reactions could affect the work performance, family life and health.

Emergency drills should include the test of the family assistance plan, and family committees should be invited as observers, because no one can provide feedback on effectiveness and efficiency better than they can, and point out any weak points. 

Including an ICAO-compliant family care plan in the airport’s emergency plan and testing it regularly is the best guarantee of putting passengers first, not only in peacetime, but also when catastrophic, but not unforeseen, events occur.


Monica Maccaferri has been an Emergency Team Co-ordinator at Bologna Airport since 1992. Since 8 October 2001, Maccaferri has been a board member of Comitato and Fondazione and a member of the Air Crash Victims and Families Federation. She is also a member of the ICAO Emergency Response and Planning Expert Group. In addition, Maccaferri is the emergency counsellor and instructor for Mayday Italia Onlus and Politecnico di Milano on crisis management, family assistance and emergency exercise planning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend