On July 6, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 – a Boeing 777 – crashed after clipping a seawall during a landing attempt at San Francisco International Airport, killing two and injuring 180 of 307 passengers. It was the first crash to result in multiple deaths involving a major airline in North America since 2001.
After ruling out the usual suspects of weather – the skies were clear – and mechanical problems, officials had no choice but to look at the next most likely factor: the pilots.
Enter the culture card.
Following the crash, a number of media outlets began to talk of the role allegedly played by Korea’s hierarchical culture in the tragic accident. From NPR and National Geogrpahic to NBC and an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, references to the possibility of a cultural piece in the puzzle of what caused the crash were liberally sprinkled in reports and analyses.
CNBC put it like this: “As a general point of reference about the Korean language, you speak to superiors and elders in an honorific form that requires more words and can be more oblique. Less, ‘Yo! You want water?’; and more, ‘It's a warm day for a nice refreshment, no?’ This may sound trivial. But put this in the context of a cockpit, where seconds and decision-making are crucial and you get an idea of how communication and culture matter.”
Pundits who took this contentious angle on what caused the Asiana crash work in the tradition of Malcom Gladwell, who penned a chapter titled The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes in his Outliers: The Story of Success – a huge success story itself. Speaking about his thinking behind this chapter, Gladwell told CNN Money in 2008:
“Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for a period at the end of the 1990s. When we think of airline crashes, we think, ‘Oh, they must have had old planes. They must have had badly trained pilots.’ No. What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical.”
The deferential respect that is de rigueur in Korea’s apparently über-Confucian social strata was readily apparent in the infamous Korean Air crash that occurred in Guam in 1997, when Flight 801 smashed into a hill, killing 228 of 254 passengers on board a Boeing 747. Another case in 1999, wherein junior officers were seemingly too timid to voice their concerns to the captain in time to avert disaster, occurred near London.
In addition to an alleged reluctance to point out a superior’s errors, no matter how grave, Korea’s rigid pecking order also purportedly gives preference to retired military fliers over civilian pilots. This lack of civilian-military cooperation is not conducive to the cockpit camaraderie needed to commandeer a large commercial jet.
But can Confucian cultural underpinnings – which also exert strong pull in countries like China and Japan, where airline safety is not a sore point – really account for the Asiana crash? Especially after so many safety adjustments were made to improve the nation’s avionic rep – most notably in the case of formerly disgraced Korean Air?
As Slate notes, “A 2008 assessment by ICAO, the civil aviation branch of the United Nations, ranked Korea's aviation safety standards, including its pilot training standards, as nothing less than the highest in the world, beating out more than 100 other countries. As they should be, Koreans are immensely proud of this turnaround, and Asiana Airlines, the nation's No. 2 carrier, had maintained an impeccable record of both customer satisfaction and safety.”
For perspective, Asiana pilots must fly 10 flights and a total of 60 hours on a 777 to complete the airline’s training program. Pilot Lee Kang-kuk, a veteran with nearly 10,000 hours of total flying experience, had eight flights and 43 hours on the Boeing 777 under his belt when the crash occurred.
While many have pounced on Lee’s alleged lack of experience, Slate calls the lack-of-experience argument a “red herring” and goes on to note, “Pilots transition from aircraft type to aircraft type all the time, and it's not uncommon for a pilot to have a limited number of hours in whichever plane he or she has most recently qualified in.”
Last Friday South Korean aviation officials also shot down the culture explanation.
“It's true that authoritarianism existed in the cockpit until the late 1990s (of South Korean flights) but we have now a completely different culture,” said Chang Man-Heui, director of flight standards at the South Korean transportation ministry.
Jung Yun-Sick of Jungwong University, a former Asiana pilot, added, “I assure you that cockpit culture has undergone great changes and become as much democratic as another countries.”
A more likely explanation is that pilots have become too dependent on automated processes at the expense of know-how. According to Thomas W. Brown, a former American employee of a Boeing subsidiary that trains Korean pilots, South Korea lacks a network of small airports to hone young aviators’ flying acumens. As a result, they rely too heavily on automated processes.
Brown told The New York Times, “You get the autopilot on at 250 feet over the ground and you keep it on for 16 hours, until one minute before touchdown, and you really don’t get any flying experience.”
Inexperience, Confucianism or a combination? The investigation is ongoing.