Culture in the Cockpit: How Misunderstanding Roles in the Sky Can Lead to Disaster on the GroundJuly 16th, 2013 by Dean Foster | Discuss This »
Asiana flight 214 was just seconds away from landing at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) when it crashed onto the runway, killing two people and injuring more than 180. While the official cause of the crash is still being investigated, reports of good weather and a relatively new and sound plane have caused many to turn to a lesser known cause of disaster: culture.
Naturally, cultural norms and customs do not stay on the ground when a cabin crew heads into the air – those customs travel with them. An American pilot is an American pilot whether he is taxiing at JFK or landing at Narita, just like the Korean flight crew of flight 214 was just as Korean landing in San Francisco as they were leaving Seoul. One of the ways that these cultural ties manifest themselves at 38,000 feet is in cockpit culture.
Korean culture is extremely hierarchical. The person in a position of authority is not to be challenged, and almost always his or her word is the only word. The writer Malcolm Gladwell actually addressed this issue head on in his book Outliers when discussing the very shaky safety record of Korean Air in the 1980s and ‘90s. In his book, Gladwell discusses the hierarchy of Korean culture and how the deferential cultural dynamics can make for an unsafe atmosphere in a cockpit, a place where it’s imperative the crew works together as a team.
Culture in the cockpit is certainly not a Korean specific phenomenon; pilots around the world have different perceptions of authority – their own, their co-pilots, and that of the air traffic controllers who are guiding them. In some cultures where women are expected to be subordinate to men, a woman’s voice coming from air traffic control would be easily ignored by a male pilot. In other cultures, where rules are trumped by subjective situations, procedures may be more easily dismissed in the face of pressure to do otherwise. In Outliers, Gladwell mentions the 1990 Long Island crash of Avianca Flight 52, which crashed after running out of fuel while circling waiting for clearance to land at JFK. Gladwell’s thought is that the Colombian pilots were not assertive enough when speaking to air traffic control and, due to cultural custom, did not want to question air traffic control’s authority when they were told to keep circling.
While the investigation into the cause of the recent Asiana crash is still underway, there are certainly elements of cultural norms and social science to consider. It is impossible to say whether or not the plane would have landed safely with a different cultural influence in the cockpit, but facts about customs and norms are worth weighing.
Managing Across Cultures, July 23rd, 2013 on 3:29 am
Culture is itself a communal disaster. When in cockpit it must not matter whether the pilot is an American or korean. Culture in the cockpit is certainly not a cultural specific phenomenon; pilots around the world have different perceptions of authority. Cultural norms need to be considered on terms of communication with the authority. To avoid such disasters in future elements of cultural norms and social science needed to be taken as an issue of worry.
Daniel Beaulieu, August 10th, 2013 on 5:06 pm
Im thankful for the post.Really getting excited about read more. Keep writing.
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