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Science & Technology Series: Expert Comment

Explainer: What happens in the aftermath of a plane crash?

Following the tragic crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max jet that killed all 157 people on board this month, Captain Tilmann Gabriel, Programme Director for City’s MSc Aviation Management programmes, explains how investigations are handled after such accidents have occurred.

by Nahda Abdalla (Senior Communications Officer (Dubai))

As rare as these accidents are, it is crucial that every airline is well prepared in the event of a plane crash. To do this, the crisis management teams have to go through a simulation exercise, at least once a year, to ensure their readiness to respond to a crisis.

As soon as the emergency situation occurs, the first step is to open a ‘next-of-kin’ communication centre staffed by specially trained employees who are on hand to answer the many calls coming in from people, such as relatives and friends of victims.

The country in which the accident takes place is responsible for securing the accident site and starting the investigation, with black boxes being the first thing to be examined for hints on what may have caused the aircraft to crash.

How a black box works

Despite the fact that they are usually referred to as black boxes, they are actually bright orange in colour so they can be easily identified after an accident. The black box is located in the tail of the aircraft. It is made up of a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder, both of which give clear evidence of what went on during the flight. The former records information about altitude, airspeed, turbulence and so on. The latter tapes all the conversations and sounds that take place in the cockpit.

Producing an investigation report can take experts up to one to two years, but of course, if there are significant findings, as in the case of the Ethiopian Airlines jet, they are released immediately.

Compensation to victims' families

Usually, the airline immediately gives the family members a sum of USD 15-20K as monetary compensation. Additionally, airlines fly the family members to the accident site to give them the opportunity for closure. In cases like these, constant direct communication is key. Airlines must care for the next-of-kin, no matter who is at fault.

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