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Swissair Praised for Crash Handling

September 11, 1998 GMT

GENEVA (AP) _ When Flight 111 crashed into the northern Atlantic last week, Swissair helped get journalists to the crash area, put its top executives on television and made caring for victims’ families a priority.

The response contrasted with that of TWA two summers ago, when its Flight 800 crashed off Long Island. The American airline was criticized at the time for being insensitive to families, for giving top priority to investigating a terrorist attack and for being secretive with the press.

``Swissair dealt with this much better than TWA,″ said Richard George of the New York-based Public Relations Society of America.

The airline made quick and open communications with the media a top priority _ second only to caring for relatives of the crash’s 229 victims.

The airline arranged for rapid transport, police protection and cash payments for families wanting to grieve at the site of the accident near the Canadian village of Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia.

But it also chartered planes to ensure that journalists could reach the area and used its public relations firm to help smooth things on the ground.

Swissair and manufacturers Boeing have already been served with a $50 million lawsuit by former boxing champion Jake LaMotta, who lost his son. The lawsuit claims the companies should have known about wiring problems on the MD-11 aircraft _ a possible cause of the accident _ and did little to correct them.

In any case, Swissair is well insured. Investors are therefore not unduly worried and the company’s shares have remained relatively stable.

``The fact they handled everything so professionally helped restore consumer and investor confidence,″ said Janet Kinzler, European airline analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston in London.

As soon as news of the crash broke, the company’s top management appeared on live news conferences beamed around the world.

``We have an emergency plan, of which communications are a very important part,″ said Swissair spokesman Peter Gutknecht. ``The basis is to say everything we know as quickly as possible, and only give out the facts.″

Jeffrey Katz, the American CEO of Swissair, traveled to Halifax to be on the spot.

Philippe Bruggisser, chief of the parent SAir Group, made repeated appearances on television, wearing a black ribbon on his lapel and choking back his emotions.

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At Swissair’s Zurich headquarters, 12 people worked around the clock in the press department to field thousands of inquiries. In New York, the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton helped with the overload of queries coming into Swissair’s U.S. offices. The firm has a regular contract with Swissair.

In recent months, Swissair had trained more than 200 counselors to help relatives. The effort was part of a family assistance plan submitted to U.S. authorities in June to comply with legislation passed to correct the TWA mistakes.