Please note – the views in the following feature are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Safe Travels Magazine. Before travel, we recommend that you always do your own research, read travel advisories and buy appropriate travel insurance.

Danny at Nomad SOS

Twitter: @NomadSOS

Danny is the CEO of Nomad SOS, a medical and security assistance and evacuation company. He is an ex-soldier, adventurer and traveler with 20 years of experience living and operating in over 45-countries, including some of the worlds most hostile environments. Prior to founding Nomad SOS, Danny held positions with the U.S. Department of State, U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and other leading travel risk management companies.

Colombia Plane Crash Highlights Possible Failure in Duty of Care and Business Continuity Procedures

There are approximately 800,500 passengers flying at any given time. Think about that for a second. Over three quarters of a million people flying at the exact same time, every single day. That’s comparable to the entire population of Leeds (U.K.) or San Fransisco (U.S.).

With approximately 40.3% of air travel being for business purposes, companies have hundreds of thousands of employees traveling to thousands of cities around the world on a daily basis. Keeping them safe is of utmost importance, and ensuring a company can keep operating if there is an incident is critical.

Having reliable duty of care policies and business continuity procedures in place is essential for any business, but what happens when your policies and procedures are jeopardised?

The tragic plane crash that happened recently in Colombia killing 71 people has highlighted several duty of care, business continuity and crisis response concerns that all companies and travelers should be aware of.

To highlight, a short-haul airliner operated by LAMIA carrying the Chapecoense Football Team had taken off from Santa Cruz, Bolivia on November 28th and was heading to Medellin, Colombia. The flight distance was 1,900 miles – the maximum range for that type of aircraft.

Above Medellin, the plane was placed in a holding pattern due to inclement weather. The crew, almost immediately requested a priority landing due to a fuel problem. Seven minutes later, the co-pilot radioed again and reported, “total failure, electrics and fuel” – essentially turning the plane into a 90,000 pound glider that crashed into a hillside shortly after, killing 71 people. Five people survived.

Duty of Care

The pilot and co-pilot would have been well aware from the planning stages of their flight that they were flying to the maximum range of the aircraft. It is standard for the captain, as part of his or her procedures, to calculate the center of gravity, landing weights and fuel consumption during the course of the flight to ensure they remained within allowable limits.

Presumably the flight crew would have also had to report and file their flight plan with their employers and flight operator, LAMIA, who have since had their permits and certifications suspended.

In addition, the flight crew did not declare an emergency. Instead, they requested a priority landing, which is not the same. Had they declared an emergency, Air Traffic Control would have assessed the situation, and offered the pilot(s) options. These would include immediately landing on a runway at the intended airport, or at a secondary airport that is close by or known geographical locations such as major highways or possible open areas.

From before the flight even took off in Santa Cruz, there appears to have been a fundamental failure of critical procedures at every level – from the flight carrier, to the flight crew, and possibly even the Air Traffic Control who upon hearing that they had a fuel problem, could have asked if they needed to declare an emergency. There are still many unanswered questions –

  • Why didn’t the pilots make a schedule a fuel stop between Santa Cruz and Medellin? [Ed – please see reference at end for further information]
  • Why didn’t LAMIA review the flight plan and advise the pilots to schedule a fuel stop?
  • Why didn’t the pilots declare an emergency?
  • Why didn’t Air Traffic Control clarify status upon hearing there was a fuel problem?

At the time of writing, the black boxes from the crash-site have been recovered and their contents are currently being analysed to determine the exact cause of the crash.

Business Continuity

On board were 76 passengers, including 22 football players, the executives and management of the football team, 21 journalists and 9 crew. Although the Chapecoense Team will likely continue to exist, it will be doing so without 19 of its star players who died in the crash, along with the teams owners and managers. In addition, LAMIA lost 9 of its staff members and Fox News in Brazil lost 6 journalists from a single network.

It is vital for companies to prevent executives, employees and team members from traveling together. I recently attended a business continuity conference. Every booth I visited, I dropped into the conversation the question of how they traveled there. Unbelievably, over 70% of the companies I spoke to had traveled to the conference together!

In addition, our Crisis Response Team recently deployed to the Caribbean to provide assistance to travelers in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. We separated our team into pairs, and they traveled on three separate planes. On one of those planes was a major disaster response company. We asked how they had split their team. They hadn’t. All 12 members were on board the same flight, and on that team was the company’s CEO, Director of Operations, and Operations Manager.

I’m not highlighting these cases to point fingers or to cause embarrassment, more to highlight the fact that complacency plays an integral part in travel safety, business continuity and duty of care to yourself, and your employees. Everybody thinks it won’t happen to them, but what if it does? Is your company ready to deal with a crisis? Are your employees covered by the right insurance for where they are traveling? Do you have employees who are cross trained in each other’s jobs? Accidents happen, and often they are caused by events out of your control. While the event may not be preventable, the impact this has on your team can nearly always be mitigated.

Crisis Response

For days after the crash, it was still not 100% clear who exactly was on-board the plane, and some names of the dead were withheld from the media because the next of kin still had not been informed. In some cases, certainly in two that I read about, the company that employed these people did not have the details of family members on-file. In addition, one family was misinformed that their son had been killed in the crash, when in fact he had never even boarded the plane.

How you respond to a crisis is critical.

As an assistance company, the services we provide to private companies, and on behalf of insurance companies are often reactive due to being called after an incident. However, we assist and encourage our retained clients to be proactive, making them better prepared to deal with a crisis, both internal and external. Here is some of the information we encourage them to retain on file, as well as some advice:

  • Keep up-to-date information of employees’ next of kin and emergency contacts.
  • Know the contact details of your employees’ family doctor.
  • Document your employees’ medical history and pre-existing medical conditions for insurance purposes.
  • Provide adequate insurance for the country they are visiting, including medical and security assistance and evacuation, and repatriation of mortal remains coverage.
  • Make it mandatory for your travelers to attend travel safety training with a reputable company.
  • Ensure your employees have a phone number where they can call someone 24/7 from anywhere in the world in the event of an incident.
  • Be ready to provide psychological assistance to people involved in an incident, their families, and employees of the company who it also affected.
  • Inform the families of those involved in an incident immediately, and provide a phone number for them to call when they have questions/concerns.
  • In some cases, it’s best to inform the media, in others it’s best to wait until they contact you. Either way, be ready. Never say, “No comment.”
  • Train your employees in your company procedures, so that they know exactly what will be happening at every level of the company if it is them that is involved in the incident.

The above procedures are just some of the points you need to include in your duty of care, business continuity and crisis response policies, and services we provide on a daily basis for clients. In addition, you should include questions and answers to determine if an employee is ‘under duress’ in an extortion scenario, and also for ‘proof of life’ in a kidnapping scenario.

The Colombia plane crash is a wake-up call for sports teams and news networks around the world, but all companies sending people overseas should learn from it too.

[1] Flight plans and refueling

In addition to the quotes from media coverage below, there is discussion of the flight plan and refueling on the LaMia Flight 2933 Wikipedia page, which is well worth reading. It mentions multiple flight plans, including two with a refueling stop, as well as the objections lodged by an AASANA officer regarding the safety of one of the plans.

From the Guardian, ‘Chapecoense plane crash: fans’ anger after confirmation plane ran out of fuel’, (checked on 13th Dec) –

Delays getting from São Paulo to Bolivia, where the team chartered the plane that crashed, meant a planned refuelling stop in Cobija, Bolivia, was abandoned because the airport does not operate at night, O Globo said.

From the Telegraph, ‘Bolivia suspends licence of airline behind Colombia plane crash as it emerges pilot skipped crucial refuel stop’, (checked on 13th Dec) –

Gustavo Vargas, a director at LaMia, told Bolivian press that it was Captain Quiroga had decided to skip refuelling the aircraft in Colombian capital Bogota, choosing instead to fly directly to Jose Maria Cordova airport on the outskirts of Medellin.

“The pilot was the one who made the decision,” Mr Vargas said. “He thought the fuel would last.”

From the BBC, ‘Chapecoense plane crash: Pilot ‘was warned over fuel’’, (checked on 13th Dec) –

In the report carried in Deber, the Bolivian airport authority official at Santa Cruz airport said she raised concerns that the plane’s fuel load was only enough for the exact flight time.

The paper said she described how the airline’s clerk, who died in the crash, had told her the pilot was confident he had enough fuel. Despite her concerns, the flight plan was passed on to Bolivian air control.

From the BBC, ‘Chapecoense air crash: Colombia plane ‘ran out of fuel’’, (checked on 13th Dec) –

Freddy Bonilla, another aviation official, said regulations stipulated that aircraft must have 30 minutes of fuel in reserve to reach an alternative airport in an emergency, but “in this case the plane did not have” it.

“The engines are the electrical source… but without fuel, obviously the electrical source would have been completely lost,” he added.

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