MONTREAL (Reuters) - The United Nations aviation agency is looking to bolster support for families of victims of air disasters as it members continue to debate strategies for preventing planes from being shot down over conflict zones or disappearing.
A recommendation that is winding its way through the Montreal-based agency would urge states to come up with concrete plans to help families of plane-crash victims, Nancy Graham, director of the U.N.'s International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO) Air Navigation Bureau said on Wednesday.
The recommendation would not be mandatory, but would "strongly recommend" states provide assistance such as helping families obtain visas to gain access to accident sites and in aiding repatriation of victims' remains. It would also urge airport operators and airlines to come up with their own plans.
"Just like any other emergency plan you need to have a readiness plan to support the families," Graham told Reuters in an interview. "It is the clear intention of the organisation to send a message that we are very keen to see states take care of their citizens and other citizens."
In June, ICAO's governing council will vote on whether to make family-assistance plans a recommended practise for the organisation's 191 member states, a change that would modify an annex in ICAO's founding charter, the Chicago Convention.
"This would have states treat families with dignity," said Spanish victims' rights activist Pilar Vera Palmes, who lost her niece when a Spanair flight crashed on take off in Madrid in 2008.
"It would ensure that government and the airlines help victims not just at the time of the accident but also going forward."
While there are no hard statistics, Graham estimates less than a quarter of member states have developed plans to assist families.
Experts say the aviation industry's underlying safety record is improving. Yet the loss of Indonesia AirAsia Flight QZ8501 in December capped the deadliest year in civil aviation for almost a decade.
Graham, who is retiring from ICAO at the end of March, lost her own maternal grandmother in a 1993 U.S. rail accident.
"I'm very sensitive to what the families go through and how challenging it is when you don't have information and how painful it is when there is misrepresentation," she said, adding she believes family assistance plans will be mandatory one day.
"There will be enough push to make it a standard," she said. "It's the right thing to do."
(Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson; and Peter Galloway)