Federal transportation officials confirmed Wednesday they are investigating Asiana Airline's treatment of victims and their families following the July 6 crash of Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport, which killed three teenage girls and injured dozens of others.
The probe by the U.S. Department of Transportation follows a series of well-publicized missteps by Asiana that included frustratingly slow information updates immediately after the crash, missed opportunities by company executives to communicate and display leadership, and a widely ridiculed threat to sue a Bay Area TV station for an insensitive report on the crash.
The investigation also could affect the growing number of lawsuits facing the South Korean airline in U.S. courts.
A determination by the Transportation Department that Asiana failed to comply with the so-called "family assistance act" could increase the size of potential damages, according to some of the attorneys who represent victims and their families.
"It may have some bearing on the damages under the broad parameters of pain and suffering and emotional distress," said Anthony Tarricone, whose law firm represents the families of all three girls who died. "The anguish, anxiety and emotional aspects following the crash could be impacted."
With minor exceptions, all airlines that fly in the United States are required to have up-to-date family assistance plans in the event of a crash, said Transportation Department spokesman Bill Mosely.
The department has never imposed penalties on an airline for failing to comply with the family assistance act, Mosely said. But the maximum penalties could be as much as $27,500 "per incident," he said, without elaborating on what would be considered a single incident.
Mosely declined to speculate on when the department's investigation will be completed, but said Asiana is cooperating.
Asiana officials did not respond to requests for comment, but when previously asked about its actions after the accident it has said it wanted to focus on assisting the victims and their families.
As first reported by The Associated Press, Asiana was required to provide a wide-range of services to victims and family members in the event of a crash, including the prompt posting of a toll-free number for people to get information, along with transportation and lodging for family members.
Asiana had not updated its family assistance plan since 2004, and first circulated a public phone number three hours after the crash that was for an automated Asiana reservations line. The next day, Asiana posted a different number that it also changed several days later, according to the AP.
"We had some concerns," said Keith Holloway, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which continues to investigate the cause -- or causes -- of the crash. "After the accident occurred, we noticed that information was not given to the families as quickly as we thought they should following an accident. We gave our concerns to the Department of Transportation."
Three days after the crash, Asiana Chief Executive Yoon Young-doo landed at SFO and was criticized for failing to speak to the South Korean, Chinese and U.S. journalists who mobbed him at the airport, and no one spoke on his behalf.
The day after Yoon arrived, six of the flight's 12 flight attendants then appeared at a puzzling news conference in which none of them spoke and even their Korean interpreter declined to be identified.
Some of the flight attendants even hid their faces.
Then Asiana said it was going to sue Bay Area TV station KTVU after it reported bogus and culturally insensitive names for the four pilots on board, such as "Sum Ting Wong" and "Wi Tu Lo." The station later apologized and Asiana retracted its intention to sue.
"Unfortunately, Asiana Airlines, with the world's eyes set on it, was slow to respond and was far from satisfying the insatiable need for more information in the hours after the crash, " SimpliFlying, an airline consulting firm, wrote in an analysis.
Walnut Creek Attorney Michael P. Verna, who represents the families of three injured passengers, said Asiana's post-crash response "victimized people a second time."
Following the crash, Verna said Hector Machorro was frantic for information on his wife, Younga Jun Machorro, 41, and their 8-year-old son, Benjamin Hyo-Ik Machorro.
"He gets placed in a lounge area where he sits there for hours with no one telling him anything," Verna said. "Nobody from Asiana was helpful."
One of Verna's other clients, Chinese university professor Zhengheng "Henry" Xie, suffered vertebra fractures and was put up in a hotel while he was treated as an outpatient at Stanford University Medical Center -- costs that were picked up by Asiana, Verna said.
"But he didn't have a translator, didn't have car service and didn't have any cash to get to the hospital for treatment," Verna said. "I can't believe there were only two people out of 291 (passengers) who had these experiences. I've been doing this for 30 years and I can't remember a time in any of these major accidents where an airline has conducted itself in a more deplorable way after an accident than Asiana has."
Contact Dan Nakaso at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/dannakaso.