Jet tragedy families wait on pay

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 May, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 May, 1993, 12:00am

TWO years after a Lauda Airlines Boeing 767-300 broke up over Thailand, killing everybody on board, at least six Hongkong families have still to receive full compensation payments.

Flight NG004 was travelling from Hongkong to Vienna via Bangkok when a malfunction in its engine reverse mechanism caused it to disintegrate in mid-air on May 26, 1991.

Although Lauda Air and US-based aircraft manufacturers Boeing came to a joint settlement at least 14 months ago with the families of most of the 232 victims, money has not yet been paid to around 20 of the families where children are claimants.

''When you represent people under the age of 18, any settlement must be approved by a court because the airline and manufacturing companies want to protect themselves from any further claims,'' said Mr Neil Taylor, of law firm Sinclair Roche.

The firm represented almost all the relatives of the 52 Hongkong residents killed.

He said relatives of six Hongkong victims had still not received their money. The cases were due to appear before the Hongkong High Court ''within the next couple of months''.

Mr Taylor was unable to disclose the total settlement sum because he had signed a document of confidentiality as part of the settlement process.

He said, however, that the sums were ''considerable'' and had been ''satisfactory for all concerned''.

He also said there was a legal clause that if any of the families who had not yet received compensation could prove current financial hardship they would be given an advance payment ''on account'' from the compensation fund.

Mr Taylor said the time-scale of settlement had been less than he had expected.

''We achieved remarkable progress given that these cases are always complicated,'' he said.

''There are very detailed formalities involved before things can be sorted out.'' One of the biggest problems was the number of countries involved in the case.

''An Austrian aircraft, manufactured by an American company, carrying passengers of several different nationalities, [disintegrated] over Thailand on a flight from Hongkong to Vienna.

''It was a complex legal game of chess, where we first had to determine what nation's laws would apply, before looking at the actual details of the case,'' said Mr Taylor.

Discovering the cause of the accident had been another hurdle in the process of determining liability and compensation, he added.

At first a terrorist bomb was suspected of causing the plane to disintegrate only 12 minutes after taking off from Bangkok airport. Later a fire in the cargo hold was blamed, he said.

''We are now certain that [it] was caused by one of the engines going into reverse thrust in mid-flight,'' Mr Taylor said.

''But we still don't know why it happened.'' Mr Dieter Staudacher, a lawyer in the Lauda Air legal department, confirmed that within months of the accident the company had modified its fleet of Boeing 767s and 757s to ensure that engines could not go into reverse when in the air, according to guidelines issued by the US Federal Aviation Administration.

''The modifications were introduced by all airlines worldwide, but we were the first airline to bring in that change,'' he said.

Operations manager for Lauda Air in Hongkong, Mr Sunny Yu Ho-yuen, said there had been a 20 per cent drop in bookings from Hongkong since the crash.

But more passengers booked from Vienna so total numbers had not changed much, he added.