LOS ANGELES (AP) — When anguished family members first called for information about their loved ones aboard a wrecked Asiana Airlines plane, instead of getting answers they had to navigate an automated reservation system.
Even once Asiana finally set up a proper hotline, it would be five days before the South Korean airline connected with the families of all 291 passengers.
Asiana's response to the deadly crash last summer near San Francisco earned quick criticism for its disarray. On Tuesday, it also earned a $500,000 penalty from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
It's the first time federal officials have concluded that an airline broke laws requiring prompt and generous assistance for the loved ones of crash victims.
Three people died and dozens were injured July 6 when Asiana Flight 214 clipped a seawall while landing at San Francisco International Airport. One of the victims, a 16 year old girl, apparently survived being ejected onto the tarmac, only to be run over by a fire truck.
Many families live in South Korea or China, meaning the airline was their main source of information on the crash half a world away.
"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 prepared statement.
Under a consent order the airline signed with the department, Asiana will pay a $400,000 fine and get a $100,000 credit for sponsoring conferences and training sessions through 2015 to discuss lessons learned from the situation.
In a statement emailed to The Associated Press, Asiana spokeswoman Hyomin Lee said the airline "provided extensive support to the passengers and their families following the accident and will continue to do so."
Asiana said in the consent order that its response was slowed because the crash occurred on a holiday weekend when staffing was short. The airline said it was not alone among foreign airlines with "few trained employees to attend to post-accident responsibilities."
Asiana argued that it recovered quickly, noting that within a few days of the crash it had assigned a special representative to each passenger and family, flown in family members from overseas and provided professional crisis counseling.
The consent order also laid out findings from the Department of Transportation's investigation. Among them:
— Asiana generally "failed to commit sufficient resources" to help families; it wasn't until five days after the crash that its employees were meeting all responsibilities under U.S. law. The airline lacked translators and personnel trained in crash response.
— It took Asiana more than 18 hours to staff a reliable toll-free hotline.
— The law requires family notification as soon as practical, but Asiana had contacted just three-quarters of families within two days. It would take five days to contact every family.
Congress required carriers to dedicate significant resources to families of passengers in the late 1990s, after airlines were roundly criticized for ignoring desperate requests for information after crashes.
Last fall, the AP 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 their plans with the Department of Transportation. Among them is Asiana's bigger rival, Korean Air.
Many airlines invest in crash preparedness and family assistance planning, but a minority are "using lip service and euphemisms in their plans," said Robert A. Jensen, whose company has contracts with hundreds of airlines to help after an accident.
"It's time that some of the airlines that have been flying under the radar be held accountable," said Jensen, CEO of Kenyon International Emergency Services. "Somebody finally got caught."
The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of the crash. Family members of some passengers have sued the airline in federal court.