American Airlines needs to be humane toward families of crash victims
November 20, 2001
A Dominican is worth half what an American is worth.
That was the message the insurance industry relayed the day after American Airlines Flight 587 plowed into a beachside neighborhood in New York, killing 265 people.
As a naturalized American of Dominican descent, I am appalled that my heritage and ethnic identity make me less valuable in the eyes of insurance companies.
In a wire story circulated by the Agence French-Presse (AFP), an insurance expert revealed that companies had slashed by half their estimate of potential payouts to the families of those who perished aboard the flight en route to the Dominican Republic.
"It's horrible to say, but there were many Dominicans on board the plane and their compensation payouts are less than, say, for an American," said the insider who insisted on anonymity.
The change came after learning that more than 90 percent of the passengers -- including five unticketed infants traveling on their parents' laps -- were Dominican nationals or of Dominican descent. "We estimated a payout yesterday (the day of the crash) of about a billion dollars but we lowered our evaluation today (the day after) to about 500 million dollars," the insurance-industry insider explained from Paris. Calculations are based on a number of factors, including the victim's income and family situation.
I can't help but wonder: What if my mother -- who still carries a red Dominican passport -- and I had both been on that ill-fated flight? Right now my family would have to grieve our loss while also being forced to fight with insurers over exactly which part of my blue American passport doubled my worth as a person.
For the families of those Dominicans who perished aboard Flight 587, the message is insulting and grim.
On top of the bias, the survivors have to contend with antiquated insurance regulations.
The primary culprit is an international treaty signed in 1929 called the Warsaw Convention, which limits wrongful death and injury awards to $75,000 per passenger on international flights.
American Airlines has moved swiftly to offer this symbolic amount to all the families of the recent airliner crash.
As with previous airline disasters, litigation seems imminent. In a similar case, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, which killed 270 people, victims' families filed suit within one week. Twelve years later, some were still waiting for verdicts. The lengthy litigation process did not allow them to put the tragic loss behind them.
If a court determines that airlines are at fault for a crash, they would be required to pay families more. According to the Warsaw Convention, an airline is obligated to pay more only if it is proven that "it failed to take precautions to prevent the disaster -- a level of negligence known as 'willful misconduct,'" according to Newsday, a New York daily.
American Airlines and its insurers have before them a unique and historic opportunity to set a moral precedent. They should be proactive and humane by avoiding litigation altogether and offering ethically responsible indemnification.
"Traditionally, airlines receive $2.7 million per passenger from their insurance companies within 10 days of a crash," the president of the National Air Disaster Alliance, Gail A. Dunham, told insure.com. American Airlines should hand that money over to the families.
An American Airlines spokesman offered words of comfort to the hundreds of people who gathered Sunday night at a Washington Heights church for a memorial service for many of the victims who lived in my neighborhood. He told those present, "We love you. We love your people. And now more than ever we will serve you."
Words are cheap. American Airlines must now show that it also values its Dominican passengers as much as its American customers.
Juleyka Lantigua is the managing editor of Urban Latino magazine in New York. She can be reached at email@example.com.