Paul Holmes 04 Jan 1991 // 12:00AM GMT
On December 21, 1998, a terrorist bomb brought down Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 258 passengers and crew and a further 12 people on the ground. Criticism of the airline began almost immediately. Antiterrorism experts suggested that security precautions taken by Pan Am, like those of most airlines, were insufficient. It was revealed that the airline had been warned one of its flights out of Frankfurt could be a terrorist target.
However, a recent "docudrama," produced by journalists at Granada Television in the U.K. and the original programming department of Home Box Office, goes further in its indictment of Pan Am than any previous investigation. The reconstruction of events leading up to the bombing suggests that the airline perpetrated a massive fraud upon the public, promoting a security program that was more hype than reality.
The program, broadcast in this country as The Tragedy of Flight 103: The Inside Story raises some serious questions, about the reporting techniques of the investigative journalists involved as well as about the airline's security and public relations programs.
Pan Am's handling of the crisis did little to deflect criticism. Chairman and CEO Thomas G. Plaskett declined to visit the site of the crash, despite the advice of outside public relations counsel, apparently concerned that this would imply Pan Am accepted responsibility for the incident. Relatives of the victims assailed the airline for failing to release the passenger manifest swiftly, leaving them in the dark; for mishandling the notification; and for insensitivity in the way it handed the victims' bodies over to their families.
According to representatives of the victims' families, most heard nothing from the company's senior management—no expression of condolence or explanation of how the bomb could have beaten Pan Am security—until a financial settlement offer.
Aphrodite Tsaris, whose daughter was among those killed on flight 103, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the airline. "There has been a lot of fingerpointing and buck-passing between Pan Am and the Federal Aviation Authority," she told this magazine. "But there was no sense of corporate responsibility. They could have improved their reputation if they had been more honest, the way Tylenol did. Pan Am just carried on doing business as though nothing had happened. It was nine months before the airline even came up to FAA standards."
When the Presidential Commission released its findings on the causes of the crash in May of this year many—including Aphrodite Tsaris—were surprised that the airline got off so easily. While the report referred to shortcomings of security, it reserved its strongest criticism for the Federal Aviation Authority, and media coverage of the findings concentrated on the identity of the bombers rather than on shortcomings in security.
Thomas Plaskett's response was full-page ad in major newspapers, in which he acknowledged the criticisms but suggested: "This is not the forum, nor the time, in which to answer those criticisms or evaluate their recommendations. Except to emphasize that before, during and after the crisis, we put forth every effort possible."
He went on to ask several questions: "Is it appropriate that U.S. commercial airline companies, acting on their own... be required to provide extraordinary, quasi-military security in the face of increasing terrorist determination? Should airlines, who are the victims, not targets of terrorist attacks, be held responsible for developing such extraordinary security measures? Should not the one-half of U.S. citizens traveling on foreign airlines know that foreign airlines are not required to provide the same level of security as U.S. carriers?"
A plan for the future was suggested, recognizing that all airlines were subject to the threat of terrorism and suggesting a uniform international standard of security procedures.
One crisis management veteran told me: "What they seemed to be doing was saying it's not our fault, because making our airline safe would be too expensive, and in any case, our airline is safer than foreign airlines, so Americans should still fly with us."
There is no doubt that Pan Am was in an extremely difficult situation after Lockerbie. Even security experts concede that there is no way to make airlines 100% safe from terrorist attacks, and many say that Pan Am went further than most of its competitors—domestic and international—in combating terrorist threats.
However, the major question today must be whether the airline deliberately set out to mislead its passengers into believing it was taking security precautions other airlines were not? Whether it, in effect, conned passengers into believing in a program that was little more than a smokescreen. Those are the charges raised by The Tragedy of Flight 103.
The program's reconstruction of events was apparently the result of a year long investigation by reporters from Granada's World in Action team (a British version of 60 Minutes) that included primary research (conversations with former FAA and Pan Am executives) and extracts from material submitted to the Presidential Commission. Even so, the producers admit that some segments are pure speculation, without identifying which segments.
The film portrays former Pan Am chairman C. Edward Acker commissioning security expert Fred Ford to review Pan Am security, emphasizing that he wants people to "feel safe" flying Pan Am, and introducing a $5 surcharge on trans-Atlantic tickets to be used for a special security fund. The security program, known as Alert, is clearly viewed by Acker and his subordinates as "a program to bring back passengers" made nervous by the Libyan terrorist threat.
However, in the film Ford soon finds his plans thwarted. The company will not make funds available to replace second-rate security staff with professionals, nor is new technology provided. One of the comic highlights is the press conference to launch Alert at New York's JFK airport. Untrained dogs are brought in because the company has no trained animals, and airport officials are furious when the dogs defecate all over the terminal. Equally untrained and undisciplined security staff are issued guns, but not bullets.
At one point Ford excuses the circus to a Port Authority official: "It's just a little piece of PR."
At the crux of the film is the constantly recurring question of whether public relations can be separated from reality. If a public relations program promoting security was launched without any substantial changes in security, clearly that is bad public relations.
"I don't know the particulars of this case, but obviously public relations should be involved in that sort of program from its conception," says veteran public relations counselor Patrick Jackson, editor of PR Reporter. "If public relations urged this program and then it was found that there was not enough money to fund it, public relations should have advised the airline to tell people what was happening.
"If you make a promise you had better be able to keep it, but if for any reason you cannot, you should have the techniques for going before the public and explaining why not."
Later in the film, Ford is informed that he is naive to expect the $5 surcharge actually to be spent on security. Because of the company's financial difficulties, he is told, the cash goes straight into corporate funds. And ultimately, inevitably, he is fired.
Pan Am's vice president of corporate communications, Jeffrey Kriendler, challenges the film's version of events, describing them in a New York Times interview as demonstrating "a reckless disregard for the truth."
After the program was broadcast he told inside PR: "We have responded to every one of their allegations." Of the charges that the Alert program was public relations unsupported by any substantial effort, he said: "If you took every passenger that paid the $5 surcharge and you came up with a number, you would find that number was far less than the amount we actually spent on security over that period."
He also took issue with the portrayal of the JFK press conference: "There were dogs there," he says, "but there were no guards with guns, and no-one from the Port Authority came over to observe what we were doing. No-one was asked to look the other way." Finally, he challenged a later episode which depicted Pan Am security personnel at Frankfurt "scamming" an FAA investigator, and suggesting that a Pan Am color X-ray machine had malfunctioned. Pan Am had no such machine in Frankfurt at the time of the bombing, he says.
"Maybe because they loosely termed this thing a docudrama, that allows them to twist the facts," Kriendler says. "But they were relying largely on former employees discharged with cause, and their credibility is subject to question."
He confirmed that Pan Am was looking at legal action, but was unable to comment on whether the airline had suffered any fall-off in passenger traffic since the program aired.