Relatives of passengers of AirAsia Flight 8501 cry after visiting the crisis center at Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014. A massive hunt for the victims of the airliner resumed in the Java Sea on Wednesday, but wind, strong currents and high surf hampered recovery efforts as distraught family members anxiously waited to identify their loved ones. (AP/Firdia Lisnawati)
Friends and family of passengers onboard AirAsia Flight 8501 were dealt a crushing blow on Tuesday when the Indonesian government and AirAsia officials confirmed that debris found floating in the Java Sea came from the missing plane.
It was especially devastating for some of the relatives who were camped out at the crisis center in Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, Indonesia. As they watched live Indonesian TV broadcast of the search and rescue efforts, images of dead bodies suddenly appeared on-screen.
It was far too much for people who’d been holding out hope that their loved ones would be found alive.
“I am absolutely devastated,» Tony Fernandes, CEO of AirAsia Group, said in a statement published on the airline’s website. «This is a very difficult moment for all of us at AirAsia as we await further developments of the search and rescue operations but our first priority now is the wellbeing of the family members of those onboard QZ8501.”
For some of us watching from afar, confirmation that the debris came from QZ8501 felt a bit like the end of a mystery, especially because the plane’s disapperance came just a few months after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing.
But no matter how many times you hear on the news that the confirmation has given families «closure» — forget it. For people whose loved-ones were on QZ8501, the blurry site of a floating body isn’t the end of anything. This is an ongoing crisis with very little information to go on, and still no real answers about why and how the plane went down.
It makes sense, then, that many family members are still waiting in the crisis center, which has been upgraded and outfitted to accomodate hundreds of people. There are six televisions for monitoring news, a teleconference room, rooms to meet with doctors and counselors, and multiple break rooms equipped with cots.
AirAsia said in its most recent statement on the crash that it was «inviting family members to Surabaya, where a dedicated team of care providers will be assigned to each family to ensure that all of their needs are met. Counsellors, religious and spiritual personnel have also been invited to the family center to provide any necessary services.»
The airline hasn’t specified whether «inviting family members» means that it will cover families’ travel and housing expenses, but Fernandes said the company would be providing «some financial assistance» immediately.
It’s also established a call center for families not already at the crisis center. Families in the following countries can call these numbers.
Malaysia: +60 3 21795959
Indonesia: +62 2129270811
Singapore: +65 63077688
Korea: 007 98142069940
There are no reports yet that authorities have identified any of the victims’ remains, and there are conflicting reports about how many bodies search and rescue crews have recovered. Reuters has said 40 bodies were recovered. Other reports put the number in the single digits.
Either way, recovery efforts are ongoing. The precise location of the plane hasn’t been determined, but search and rescue officials believe it’s in the area of the floating debris. Crews spotted a shadow in the water that could be the fuselage, and even if that shadow ends up not being the plane, the water in the area is relatively shallow, so it will be possible to use divers to recover bodies, the flight recorder, and other forensic evidence related to the crash once the wreckage is found. There are also robotic submersibles that have been used in past ocean crashes which could also be put to work.
Families will need to prepare for the condition of the bodies and for the possibility that not all bodies will be recovered. Those that are will be sent to hospitals in Surabaya so that forensic experts can begin what is sometimes a long process of identification. Police have already begun working with families to collect material that could help identify victims, including DNA, photographs, and objects that might have fingerprints on them.
It goes without saying that families of victims will spend a long time dealing with the emotional toll of the tragedy. Part of dealing with that toll, sadly, is dealing with the bureaucracy of insurance payouts.
Airlines are required to carry insurance, and in the event of a fatal crash, families of victims receive compensation.
In the case of QZ8501, the insurer is Munich-based insurance company Allianz, which also insured Malaysia Airlines Flights 370 and 17. (MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July.)
Reuters estimates that Allianz’s initial compensation to families of QZ8501 will be around $27 million in total, but the final payout could be either much higher or much lower depending on two key factors.
First, there’s fault. If the airline is found to be at fault for the crash, families can file claims for much higher sums than the initial payment. There are already questions about whether the plane should have been flying in the weather conditions and whether air traffic control should have allowed the pilots to climb. So the issue of fault is very much in play.
Second is the international treaty that governs this sort of compensation. Many countries have signed onto an agreement called the «Montreal Convention,» which sets a cap for initial compensation at $170,000 per passenger.
But not Indonesia.
Indonesia never signed onto the Montreal Convention. It’s technically governed by an older treaty, the Warsaw Convention of 1929, which caps initial compensation at $8,500. AirAsia is based in Malaysia, but QZ8501 was being flown by its Indonesia-based affiliate, so there are some questions about treaty obligations that could also be affected by whether a passenger’s trip began or was supposed to end in a country that was a signatory to the Montreal Convention.
There’s a lot to be determined when it comes to compensation for the crash — not that compensation will be anywhere near the minds of most family members over the next few days.