Asiana Flight 214

Patrick Smith of Ask the Pilot  fame provided an informed critique of many of the hasty judgments people grasped at wildly after Asiana Flight 214 crashed at SFO. Among those:

Lastly, we're hearing murmurs already about the fact that Asiana Airlines hails from Korea, a country with a checkered past when it comes to air safety. Let's nip this storyline in the bud. In the 1980s and 1990s, that country's largest carrier, Korean Air, suffered a spate of fatal accidents, culminating with the crash of Flight 801 in Guam in 1997. The airline was faulted for poor training standards and a rigid, authoritarian cockpit culture. The carrier was ostracized by many in the global aviation community, including its airline code-share partners. But Korean aviation is very different today, following a systemic and very expensive overhaul of the nation’s civil aviation system. 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.

Whatever happened on final approach into SFO, I highly doubt that it was anything related to the culture of Korean air safety in 2013. Plane crashes are increasingly rare the world over. But they will continue to happen from time to time, and no airline or country is 100 percent immune. 

Malcolm Gladwell arguably did more than anyone to popularize the theory that Korean culture lay at the root of Korean Air's poor safety record in the 1980's and 1990's. In this interview with CNN Money, he summarized his theory from his book Outliers:

F: You share a fascinating story about culture and airline safety.

G: 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. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.

But Boeing (BA, Fortune 500) and Airbus design modern, complex airplanes to be flown by two equals. That works beautifully in low-power-distance cultures [like the U.S., where hierarchies aren't as relevant]. But in cultures that have high power distance, it's very difficult.

I use the case study of a very famous plane crash in Guam of Korean Air. They're flying along, and they run into a little bit of trouble, the weather's bad. The pilot makes an error, and the co-pilot doesn't correct him. But once Korean Air figured out that their problem was cultural, they fixed it.

A fairly thorough rebuttal to Gladwell's theory was posted at the blog Ask a Korean:

First, the way in which Gladwell quoted the transcript is severely misleading. This is the full transcript, which goes from pp. 185 to 187 of the NTSB report:

CAPTAIN: 어... 정말로... 졸려서... (불분명) [eh... really... sleepy... (unintelligible words)]
FIRST OFFICER: 그럼요 [Of course]
FIRST OFFICER: 괌이 안 좋네요 기장님 [Captain, Guam condition is no good]
FIRST OFFICER: Two nine eighty-six
CAPTAIN: 야! 비가 많이 온다 [Uh, it rains a lot]
CAPTAIN: (unintelligible words)
CAPTAIN: 가다가 이쯤에서 한 20 마일 요청해 [Request twenty miles deviation later on]
CAPTAIN: ... 내려가면서 좌측으로 [... to the left as we are descending]
(UNCLEAR SPEAKER): (chuckling, unintelligible words)
FIRST OFFICER: 더 오는 것같죠? 이 안에. [Don't you think it rains more? In this area, here?]

(emphases mine)

Note the difference between the full transcript, and the way Gladwell presented the transcript. Gladwell only quoted the first two lines and the last line of this sequence, omitting many critical lines in the process. In doing so, Gladwell wants to create an impression that the first officer underwent some period of silent contemplation, and decided to warn the captain of the poor weather conditions in an indirect, suggestive manner. 

The full transcript reveals that this is clearly not the case. The first officer spoke up directly, clearly, and unmistakably:  "Captain, Guam condition is no good." It is difficult to imagine how a person could be more direct about the poor weather condition. Further, there was no silent contemplation by the first officer. Nearly three minutes elapse during this sequence, during the captain and the first officer chatted constantly. And it is the captain who first brings up the fact that it is raining a great deal: "Uh, it rains a lot." In this context, it is clear that the first officer is engaged in some friendly banter about the rain, not some indirect, ominous warning about the flight conditions.

To be fair to Gladwell, when asked about whether he thought his theory from Outliers came into play in the case of Asiana Flight 214, he did not bite

We asked Malcolm Gladwell for his thoughts on the use of his essay in the particular context of the Asiana crash. "I can understand why my Outliers chapter has been of interest, given how central cockpit communication issues are in plane crashes," Gladwell told The Atlantic Wire in an email, adding, "My sense is that we should wait for the full report on the crash before drawing any conclusions about its cause." As for the applicability of his work to the recent Asiana crash, Gladwell noted that his essay was specific to the problems (and solutions) of one airline — Korean Air, "which I think did an extraordinary job of addressing the cultural issues involved in pilot communication. This was a crash involving a completely different airline," he said. 

The NTSB has yet to issue any formal assessment of what happened that day. I happened to arrive at SFO for a flight to Paris just a few hours after the crash occurred, and we could see the wreckage in the distance from our gate. Our flight was delayed by 9 hours, and we finally took off at around 9pm that night.

Our plane turned onto the runway and accelerated towards takeoff. The moment just before our wheels left the ground, I saw, just out the window to the left, the wreckage of Asiana Flight 214, sitting just off our runway, illuminated by some giant spotlights, like a giant burned out metallic skeleton that had just been dug out of the earth.