a@w 11 – December 16, 2020: When Feelings Didn’t Count: A Former Airline Manager of Emergency Response and Contingency Planning Remembers Past Attitudes and Discusses Future Needs

awareness@work 11 – December 16, 2020
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When Feelings Didn't Count:

A Former Airline Manager of Emergency Response and Contingency Planning Remembers Past Attitudes and Discusses Future Needs

Written by: Carolyn V. Coarsey. Ph.D.

December 16, 2020

   The intention of the Foundation’s series awareness@work is to shed light on how leaders within business organizations are responding to those impacted by a crisis in the workplace. Whether one person (customer, employee, family member) or a group of people are experiencing trauma, many organizations are initiating change in how their employees respond.

    Awareness of how distressed people's needs are best met is rising dramatically with the evolution of Care and Special Assistance Teams throughout the world. Once cautioned against approaching a distressed survivor due to liability concerns, many companies today encourage employees to contact them without fear, expressing sorrow, and thereby showing genuine compassion toward the impacted individual.

    This series features program leaders' comments as to the changes they are experiencing and the challenges they see for the future of humanitarian assistance programs. This month's interview is with Jeff Morgan, Co-Founder of the Foundation and CEO of Aviem International, Inc. 

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.

Victor Frankel, M.D. Holocaust Survivor

    This month’s interview with Jeff took me back to the roots of Human Services Response™ which came from my experience as a family survivor of an airline crash, and as a former airline employee. As Jeff discusses, before my research began, many survivors spoke out about the need for improvements in how airlines respond to survivors (passengers, crew and all families impacted) of a crash. As media attention to survivors increased, pressure on airline leadership grew. Companies, not unlike individuals, confronted with a situation that does not go away, were challenged to change themselves. The problem lay in how to run a safe airline which is the number one priority of any carrier, while simultaneously planning, preparing, and training employees on what to do when the #1 priority failed—and the company resources were already spent. 

    Jeff’s responses shed light on the challenges an airline faced when those in the technical and operational side, i.e., the world he lived in as an airline manager, pushed back over the notion that the feelings of people impacted by a crash had to be factored in to getting the airline back on schedule after a crash. While regulations and laws influence the acceptance of change over time, when a crash happens and those in the technological side have not yet bought into the new normal, some responses did not fall quickly into place. 

    Jeff finishes the article by reminding the reader that there is still much to learn about, research, and more training to be done.

CVC: Since you first started your work involving humanitarian assistance in the workplace, what changes have you noticed in how people are responding when trauma or any suffering takes place? 

JM: For the last three decades, awareness that corporations should and must provide compassionate care to all impacted by a tragedy in their workplace has grown. When I first started working in airline emergency management, accidents were considered problems that belonged to the risk management team, insurance and legal folks.  

    Today, in most organizations, especially airlines and other transportation businesses when a traumatic loss occurs, governmental requirements require companies to step up and allocate far more resources than in the past. Having said that, there is still a great deal of work to be done if business organizations intend to deliver consistent compassionate care to their customers, employees, and families.

CVC: To what do you attribute any positive changes?

JM: First, survivor testimony was converted into training. While I was aware of families seeking change in how airlines responded to survivors, as far back as the Korean Air disaster in 1982, families expressed anger, but it was not helpful in pushing for desired changes. No one had been able to quantify and capture the actual needs of survivors after crashes in a way that was helpful to a company for training purposes. In 1992, when Carolyn published her dissertation Psychological Aftermath of Air Disaster: What Can be Learned for Training?, it contained information on survivors experiences —woven around crisis psychology that could be used as training guidelines. We finally had a way of using the testimony of survivors, instead of just hearing about how bad we were.

    While it is true that Carolyn’s fiancé died in Delta Flight 191 in 1985, and therefore she is a survivor, I believe it was her experiences as an employee at Eastern Airlines in the seventies during three fatal accidents, which allowed her to help us the most. She knew from experience that most airline employees wanted to help family, passenger, and crew survivors—we just did not know how. And that even if employees instinctively did some things right, they risked the possibility of losing their jobs if a supervisor did not support them. Unlike many survivors who wanted to create change with their stories, Carolyn did not need to vilify our employees—she had empathy for them.

    Working with survivors from various crashes, as she still does today, Carolyn next created professional video programs where survivors spoke directly to airline employees on how best to help in future situations. The videos and training guides for Parts 1 and 2 of Human Services Response™ were released in 1996 and updated after the legislation came out. After that, survivors began to speak in training classes and many other connections were made among airline employees and survivors—once assumed to be natural enemies.

    Secondly, we needed senior management to buy into compassionate care for survivors as a core value that became part of the mission statement. Even though many of us in the airline industry had heard about the research and some airlines were beginning to form special assistance or care teams, from my personal experience in operations at Delta, I did not see much change. When accidents happened, the operational and technical employees remained focused on the operational, legal, and financial aspects. 

    Early into my emergency management work at Delta, our connection partner, Atlantic Southeast Airlines (ASA) Flight 529 went down after takeoff from Atlanta on August 21, 1995, killing 9 of the 29 people on board. The operational team was only concerned with the inconvenience of taking an aircraft out of service—and besides as a manager told me, “The impacted passengers and crew were not really Delta customers.” In reality, the ASA passengers were our customers—but the fact that this was even mentioned in the discussion of our response shows the disconnect between the technical/operational side of the airline and those who were awakening to the movement toward compassionate care of survivors.

    Shortly after that, a colleague invited Carolyn to help us develop and train the first formal family assistance team initially called the Delta Special Assistance Team (D-SAT). Delta had followed others who were using Carolyn's training programs, such as Continental and American Airlines, among many others. Executives and operational employees began to attend classes, watching the tapes, and meeting survivors which influenced our employee groups on increasing levels, including legal and risk management. 

    As the legislation, passed in 1996 [1] took shape, family assistance was no longer a program where a few employees received training and joined a team. Companies began to establish jobs dedicated to planning, training, and exercising the response plan for working with survivors. Carolyn and I co-founded the Family Assistance Foundation in 2000 to continue these efforts at raising awareness, providing educational and training opportunities, and providing additional resources for organizations that did not have enough team members to respond to their own accident. 

    Later, Carolyn and I had a chance to bring these concepts of the Human Services Response™ models to other industries such as the rail industry, cruise lines, tour operators, manufacturing, and energy companies, to name many with which we've had the pleasure to work. [2]

CVCWhere do you see the greatest challenges going forward as we try to help companies respond from compassion instead of fear of lawsuits and/or questions about increasing liability by employee response?

JM: There is both a “quality” and “quantity” issue faced by many companies today. We observed this issue, but perhaps not as great twenty years ago when we created the Family Assistance Foundation. As I mentioned, the original goal was to educate businesses on how best to respond to trauma in their workplace, and to provide a pool of trained resources (care team employees) from corporate members when tragedy struck and the company needed more trained responders. 

    Since we began—we have exceeded our goal for holding educational meetings throughout the globe over the past twenty years. One year for example, with the help of corporate members we held four major meetings including the US; Hong Kong, China; Santiago, Chile; and London, England. While the Coronavirus caused us to cancel our domestic and international meetings in 2020, we held several webinars with survivors and responders as speakers, in place of our face-to-face meetings this year. The goal of domestic and international education remains strong, as over one hundred employees attended each of our webinars.

Current Challenge

    Having enough trained people resources remains the challenge.

As more companies and additional industries develop programs for delivering  compassionate response to a loss at work, it is important for companies to remain visible for the HSR™ approach to work. For example, in some cases an organization believes that if “someone” is offering compassionate support, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s the organization suffering the trauma or some other agency or local volunteer. 

    The research clearly shows that for a company’s response to be effective, the survivors need to know that the organization is present and helping them—on some level. This is how the survivors feel the compassion from the company who they associate with the tragedy—and helps in their long term healing from the loss.  

    The ideal response would involve having the organization stepping up to provide their own humanitarian assistance through care teams and their own responders while working along with local agency responders and community stakeholders.  

CVC: Is there anything else you want to say about the need for change?

JM: As a follow on to my previous answer, we must continue to educate organizations on the timing of the different types of assistance that can be provided, i.e, who should provide it and when. For example, at the Foundation we believe that during the acute phase of the trauma, the key aspects of humanitarian assistance are information to all survivors, practical support, and re-connection among families involved. 

    As the crisis plays out, offering options for spiritual care and professional counseling are essential. Unfortunately, today we still see people being offered counseling before they know what has happened to their loved one. Later when counseling is asked for by the survivor, they are told it is no longer available. It is all about planning, preparation, and training within the organization and in conjunction with local resources.

The need for research:

    More research is needed to help organizations understand how best to assist survivors during the acute phase of trauma. At the Foundation, we have always believed that survivors are our best teachers. As we look toward the future, we expect to help sponsor and support studies that will inform and assist business and industry leaders in their future planning, as well as coordinate with other agencies and organizations for a more fully integrated head/heart response.

“I am glad to know you are sorry for my loss. But where the hell is the airline?”

Family survivor of an airline crash where over 200 people died


    In closing, I offer this example which illustrates much of Jeff’s message about needs for the future. A few years after the legislation was passed we learned that companies were “outsourcing” their response to third party groups in order to have enough responders. The quote above came from a man who lost more than one family member in a crash where the company used an outside organization for their family assistance. He, like others interviewed felt that the accident happened, some well-meaning counselors came in, and the airline went home. 

“They got the letter of the law, but they missed the spirit of the law.”

-Family survivor of crash were 49 people died

    A family member of another crash, made the above statement when he learned about the family assistance legislation and guidelines that the airline was attempting to follow. He could see where the company and other officials were trying to help him and his family, but they missed the mark in many areas that to him were obvious. At the Foundation we believe that research can continue to guide us toward a better result in our efforts to assist survivors—and retain the spirit of the family assistance movement. Plans are under way to join with a university for purposes of continuing academic research, and continue in our efforts to learn from those who are our best teachers.


[1] The Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act (ADFAA) enacted in 1996 is designed to provide support for the families of victims of commercial airline crashes in the United States. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is charged with executing the ADFAA. The Act was amended in 1997 to include foreign air carriers operating in the US. See ntsb.gov for more information on the NTSB’s role with families of transportation accidents. Over many years, family survivors lobbied congress, and heir success culminated in 1996 with the passing of the legislation.

[2] While the US passed the first formal legislation pertaining to how an airline responds to a crash, other countries have addressed this as well. One example is the Civil Contingencies Act passed in the United Kingdom in 2004. Since Jeff and Carolyn’s own history in this work came from airline accidents in the US, references to similar legislation in other parts of the world are not included.

For more about the Foundation and our programs, please contact Cheri Johnson, cheri.johnson@fafonline.org or visit us at fafonline.org.

© 2020 Higher Resources, Inc./Aviem International, Inc.

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