Originally created 09/24/98

Airlines to ask for next-of-kin



WASHINGTON -- For Frank Carven, the foreboding that he had lost his sister and nephew in the explosion of TWA Flight 800 was compounded by what he felt was entirely preventable: the delay in notifying family members of the fate of their loved ones.

Thanks to the persistence of Carven and other survivors, the Transportation Department will begin Oct. 1 requiring airlines to ask passengers for next-of-kin information. While the rule initially will apply only to U.S. citizens arriving or departing on international flights, and answering will be voluntary, the requirement may be expanded to domestic flights one day.

"We were up all night waiting for the phone to ring," Carven, a Bel Air, Md., lawyer, recalls of the July 1996 evening the TWA plane exploded over Long Island Sound. "We felt hopeless and helpless."

The new rule was spawned by the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Because it was an international flight, the State Department had the responsibility for notifying families. It took more than seven hours for Pan Am to provide the passenger manifest, and the State Department had difficulty locating relatives because many first names were just initials, and some last names were incomplete.

In 1990, Congress passed the Aviation Security Improvement Act, which included a requirement that the Transportation Department draft a rule forcing airlines to provide victim information to the State Department quickly.

It wasn't until the TWA explosion, however, that relatives put pressure on the government to enact such a rule.

Carven said when he heard of the accident at 9 p.m. that evening, he, his three brothers and his mother started dialing eight different phones to reach an 800 number posted by TWA. When Carven got through about 1 a.m., he said he gave more information than he received.

His sister, Paula, and her 9-year-old son, Jay, had been flying standby, since Ms. Carven was a TWA employee. That made tracking here whereabouts more difficult.

"That did more to raise the frustration level of me and my family," Carven said of the delay. "If they had had at least a list of people to contact in the event there is a disaster, they could take a proactive stance and begin calling people instead of waiting for a deluge of calls to come in."

Under terms of the new rule, airlines must ask for the information before passengers board a flight. United Airlines plans to post signs at its gates and offer its ticket agents scripts for speaking with passengers. Northwest Airlines plans to print a form on the back of its boarding passes.

In all cases, passengers can opt not to answer. Also, the information will be destroyed once the flight reaches its destination. In addition, the rule prohibits airlines from using the next-of-kin information for marketing.

"The Department of Transportation will monitor the implementation of the rule on international flights and then consider if it should be expanded to domestic flights," said Steve Okun, special counsel to the department.

Carven believes expanding the law -- and answering the questions -- are the sympathetic things to do.

"I think that anybody who has a family, it's common sense to think of them and what they would be going through if they did not know," he said.