Business Aviation Insider

Mar 18, 2016

Do you know how to handle a non-aviation emergency outside the U.S.?

When a company pilot was recently found deceased in a hotel room while overseas on a trip for a U.S.-based flight department, the company experienced a legally complex and emotionally difficult scenario. The aviator’s cause of death was eventually ruled to be a medical issue, but the crewmember’s family and company waited more than two months to receive that ruling from local officials. In the meantime, his family and the flight department had to work their way through a labyrinth of foreign and U.S. policies and regulations.

Is your flight department prepared to handle the intricacies of communications, customs and immigration policies, and legal hurdles if the unthinkable happens at a foreign location?

Most flight departments have emergency response plans (ERPs) to manage the aftermath of an aircraft-related accident or incident, but do you know how to handle a non-aviation emergency overseas?

“Flight department emergency response plans typically focus on aircraft accidents,” said Greg Kulis, the security director of the flight department that lost the pilot in the case cited above.

“When an emergency unrelated to an aircraft event happens overseas, it’s important to know how to manage the emergency, work with local officials and use available resources,” stated Kulis, who is a member of NBAA’s Security Council.

Clearing Cultural Hurdles

Kulis said his flight department found communicating with local officials to be challenging. Not only were local officials largely non-English-speaking, but gaining approval for flight department management to communicate directly with local law enforcement was difficult. Following the official ruling on the cause of death, the flight department and family set out to repatriate (i.e. return to the home country) the deceased’s remains. However, they faced a number of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issues. For example, certain documents had to be authenticated before CBP would allow repatriation of the remains.

But a death is not the only non-aviation emergency that can cause difficulties overseas. An illness, injury or other medical emergency can present unexpected challenges in returning a crewmember to their home country.

Mayo Clinic, through its Preferred Response program, has provided worldwide assistance to its patients, including transportation and logistics support, following medical emergencies overseas. Two years ago, a Mayo Clinic employee was shot while visiting family in South Sudan. The employee was stabilized at a local hospital but required evacuation. Mayo Clinic worked directly with the U.S. Department of Defense to extract the employee and move him to a safe location, where Mayo’s air ambulance partners took over and returned the individual to the U.S.

“There is no exact playbook for these scenarios,” said Dr. Clayton Cowl, chair of the division of Preventive, Occupational and Aerospace Medicine at Mayo Clinic’s Rochester, MN campus. “Preparing an overarching strategy is important, but every case is typically different. There’s not always a turnkey solution.”

Utilize State Department Resources

The U.S. Department of State offers many resources for U.S. citizens traveling abroad. Consider requesting or requiring your crewmembers (and passengers, if you can) to register with the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) (see sidebar). Not only does this program enable the local embassy to contact traveling U.S. citizens during civil unrest, a natural disaster or other catastrophe, but the flight department discussed above found that registration established a “sterile” communication path. The emergency contact information provided in the registration process enabled the family to delegate communication authority to others, including flight department managers, to smooth the process.

When an emergency unrelated to an aircraft event happens overseas, it’s important to know how to manage the emergency, work with local officials and use available resources.

Greg Kulis, Flight Department Security Director

While some security experts believe flight departments should require registration of pilots and passengers, not all believe registration is necessarily appropriate. Lilli Weivoda, operations administrator at the Mayo Clinic, recommends consulting with your third-party experts. For example, when business needs require travel to a State Department “hot spot,” is registering with STEP advisable? Understanding the benefits of registering travelers may help if the aircraft owner or others are reluctant to do so.

If you’ll be traveling to the same region frequently, Kulis recommends getting to know the local U.S. embassy staff, especially the consular chief or the regional security officer. Having a local contact can be critical in facilitating communication. In his flight department’s scenario, the embassy’s consular chief played a crucial role in communicating with local officials and being able to provide the deceased’s family with current information.

Update Your Emergency Response Plan

If you travel internationally, you might want to take a look at your existing emergency response plan to determine what components are relevant to a scenario like a medical emergency or death overseas.

Kulis’ flight department’s ERP includes an employee assistance program. Volunteers within the company are trained to provide family support in the event of an accident or incident.

Employee assistance program volunteers were called upon in this case, and they played a critical role in providing timely information in a compassionate manner to the deceased’s family. Two company employee assistance program representatives worked directly with the family, providing meals, arranging transportation for out-of-state family members and giving other support.

“Our company’s employee assistance volunteers mobilized extremely quickly and were very helpful,” said Chris Lottridge, the deceased’s brother and, coincidentally, also a pilot with the same flight department. “Our company’s security and legal experts, as well as their connections overseas, were priceless in this process, as were the volunteers who helped relay information to our family.”

Other components of your ERP – media policies, insurance and legal expert contact information, and even internal communications plans – can be helpful in this type of situation, even if your ERP is geared toward an aviation-related emergency.

Engage Third-Party Providers

Of course, the time to find third-party assistance for overseas medical emergencies is before an incident occurs. Research and interview third-party providers before now, you need them.

These organizations provide critical experience in ensuring a positive result in case a problem arises.

“Before choosing an entity, be sure they have good partners in the industry,” said Weivoda. “Companies have different specialties. You need a committed partner that is well-rounded and has good [overseas] relationships.”

Sometimes legal services might be needed. In the case discussed above, the legal issues involved with repatriation were complex. For example, the coroner’s report and death certificate had to be re-certified and attested to by the U.S. embassy for insurance purposes. The flight department quickly learned that these types of documents are not universally accepted. This is especially true of countries not party to the Hague Convention, which established standardized forms for these purposes.

“We learned valuable lessons from our experience and the challenges we faced with the foreign legal system and with U.S. repatriation. We also learned how critical it is to support the family and our employees,” said Kulis. “As an industry, it’s important that we share these lessons and learn from each other so we can all be better prepared for an overseas emergency.”

Learn more about overseas support providers in the NBAA Products & Services Directory.

What Is STEP?

The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service provided by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. STEP enables U.S. citizens and nationals traveling abroad to register or “enroll” their trip with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.

Enrollment in STEP helps a U.S. embassy contact a traveler in the event of an emergency, such as natural disaster, civil unrest, legal concern, medical issue, or even a family emergency. Of course, local embassies will assist a U.S. citizen or national in need who has not registered in STEP. But if a traveler is not enrolled in STEP, the embassy will be unable to proactively contact the traveler regarding an emergency.

Enrolling a trip in STEP also enables a traveler to receive important information, including travel warnings and travel alerts, about safety conditions in their destination country or region. For example, the State Department might issue a travel warning recommending that travelers postpone a visit to a particular country or region due to ongoing terrorist activity or civil unrest. On the other hand, a travel alert is typically issued for informational purposes and communicates short-term conditions, like transportation-related strikes or a health alert.

Travelers can easily create an account on the STEP website, which involves recording a traveler’s basic contact information, making it easier and faster to get official information on future trips.

Learn more at The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).