Korea's Hierarchical Culture a Factor in Crash?

      July 11, 2013 13:29

      Some U.S. media are focusing on Korea's hierarchical culture as a factor in the crash of Asiana flight 214 in San Francisco, saying this makes communication among pilots difficult in an emergency.

      Foreign Policy magazine in an article titled, "Why Flight Safety in [Korea] Lagged Behind Its Economic Boom" on Monday, the magazine quotes best-selling pop psychologist Malcolm Gladwell as saying a hierarchical culture can threaten safety.

      "One would expect a country's aviation safety record to improve as it develops economically, since richer countries should be more committed to and capable of enforcing health and safety regulations. But according to a 2010 study, in newly rich countries like [Korea], safety in the skies does not always improve in step with GDP," it said.

      It is unclear why that is so, but authors including Gladwell point to cultural differences, saying a hierarchical and authoritarian culture in the cockpit makes it difficult for juniors to raise objections when a decision is made by seniors.

      Foreign Policy said in the case of Asiana flight 214, the first officer asked the captain to reconsider his decision to go ahead with landing, but this happened just 1.5 seconds before the crash. But the magazine added, "It's worth noting that Korean aviation safety has improved significantly from the bad old days; until this weekend's crash in San Francisco, [Korea's] Asiana Airlines had a top-ranked, seven-star rating for safety on the website airlineratings.com."

      The online edition of CNBC made a similar point in a piece titled, "Korean Culture May Offer Clues in Asiana Crash." The article cited Thomas Kochan, a professor at MIT, as saying, "The Korean culture has two features -- respect for seniority and age, and quite an authoritarian style. You put those two together, and you may get more one-way communication -- and not a lot of it upward."

      CNBC also mentioned the language used to address seniors as a problem. "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... 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."

      "Investigators combing through the debris and data recordings from the Asiana Airlines jet that crashed in San Francisco Saturday may learn more about what happened inside the cockpit of the Boeing777 aircraft by studying… Korean culture," the broadcaster claimed.

      But experts believe the claims to hold little water. In fact, it was reported that 41-year-old first officer Bong Dong-won advised his seniors -- captain Lee Kang-kuk (46) and copilot Lee Jung-min (49) -- several times that the descending speed was too fast.

      One aviation industry insider said, "If the cockpit had an authoritarian culture, it would have been impossible for Bong to raise his opinions with his seniors." And one captain said, "It's true that captains acted in an authoritarian way in the cockpit in the past, but that's almost non-existent now. It's unimaginable for a captain to ignore the first officer in an emergency."

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