WASHINGTON – Most people boarding a plane wonder if they will be served peanuts or pretzels, if the flight will land on time and if their ride will be there to pick them up at the other end.
Now, they have one more thing to think about: Which family member should be contacted in the event of a plane crash.
Passengers have been faced with that question since Thursday, when a federal regulation took effect requiring that airlines ask for next of kin.
“It sure does make you think,” said Lissa Astilla, an Arlington, Va., resident who was boarding a Delta Airlines flight Friday at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. “Thinking of my next of kin and an airplane crash is not something I usually think of when I am packing for a trip.”
Airline ticket agents at BWI said Friday that the public seems to have accepted the measure without complaint. The rule is aimed at cutting down the time it takes to notify family members in the event of a crash.
“Our passengers understand why the measure is needed,” said Kennedy Octavia, a Continental Airlines ticket agent. “We have not had any problems with people answering the question.”
Continental has also started asking the question of domestic passengers, a move that many passengers applaud, said Octavia.
Duane Jenkins, a ticketing agent for Northwest and KLM Airlines, said airlines “already ask security questions and people seem to see this as a part of that.” Check-in has not taken any longer than usual because of the question, she said, and passengers do not seem to mind.
Mary Giesey applauded the new regulation as she waited to board a Delta domestic flight at BWI Friday.
“I would like to know if I had a family member on a plane that crashed,” said Giesey, a Severn resident. “It would help because they would not have to wait hours and hours.”
Frank Coven knows firsthand what it is like to wait those agonizing hours not knowing whether or not a family member was alive or dead. The Bel Air lawyer lost his sister and niece when TWA Flight 800 blew up off Long Island in July 1996.
“We tried calling the 1-800 number that flashed on the television screen but it was busy for four hours,” Coven said Friday. “We did not find out that they had been on the plane until the next day when we flew to New York.”
The next-of-kin rule was part of the Aviation Security Act of 1990, which was passed after Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Scotland. It required that airlines get the full names of passengers on international flights and ask for a next of kin contact and number.
It took eight years to implement because “we spent a lot of time with airlines and families to get it right,” said Steve Okun, special counsel to the general counsel of the Department of Transportation.
After rejecting a plan to require passport numbers from passengers, among other proposals, the government finally settled on a rule that requires full names of passengers and gives them the option of providing next of kin.
“The carriers must ask for the full names of the passengers but they need only request a contact name and number,” said Okun. Passengers can be turned away if they refuse to give their names, but their is no penalty for refusing to provide a family contact.
Some BWI passengers were concerned with privacy under the new regulations.
“I think it is a good idea, but once your destination is reached, the information should be destroyed,” said one Delta passenger from Aberdeen who would not give her name.
Okun said the government realizes the need for privacy. “The rule requires that this information can only be used in case of an emergency,” he said.
Passengers have largely supported the measure, he said.
“There have been so many crashes and this seems to be the result of what they have learned,” said Astilla as she boarded her flight.
Robert Dowd of Chester said the regulation doesn’t go far enough. “I think it should be applied domestically,” he said. “I can’t think of anything worse than being told over the television that one of your loved ones has died.”
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