Why Do Korean Air Carriers Have a History of Crashes?

Korean air liners are jinxed. According to writer Malcolm Gladwell, Korean Air had more plane crashes in the late 1990s than almost any other airline in the world. In his book "Outliers", Gladwell says that the Korean government changed the national carrier to Asiana, after Korean Air gained a bad reputation.

But as Korean Air redeemed itself over time, its competitor took a major hit last week, as Asiana Airlines Flight 214 made a crash landing at San Francisco International Airport on July 6, 2013.

Two days after the crash, passengers landing at SFO could still see remains of the doomed Asiana flight at the edge of the runway. And the baggage claim areas of the airport were chaotic-- with hundreds of unclaimed suitcases.

"Many passengers decided not to take their flights, and other flights were re-routed," an SFO baggage handler told ILLUME.

President and CEO of Asiana, Yoon Young-doo said that the aircraft had no engine problems or mechanical problems, media reports indicate.

In Gladwell's book "Outliers", Gladwell gives his theory on why Korean Air had so many fatal crashes in the 1980s and 1990s. Interestingly, he points to cultural reasons.

Cultural factors behind airline crashes

Malcolm Gladwell points to theories laid out by Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede, who concluded that cultures differed in their "Power Distance Index." What this means is that different cultures have different ways in which they react to authority and on how they exude power.

Low power-distance countries, for example, showed an underplaying of power-- where those in power would attempt to downplay their power. Think Silicon Valley, where many powerful venture capitalists can be seen at an average Starbucks wearing faded jeans and a t-shirt.

Cultures with a lower power-distance index (PDI) expect more collaborative relations between those in power and the subordinates. Cultures with high power-distance expect more deference in judgment to those in power.

Applied to the airplane cockpit, Gladwell used the power-distance theory to explain why Korean culture contributed to the crashes of Korean Air jets. In high power-distance cultures, it's not as common for a first officer to speak out against a captain's actions in the cockpit.

Could cultural issues of power-distance have been the reason behind the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash?

Writes Gladwell: "Among Korean Air flight crews, the expectation on layovers used to be that the junior officers would attend to the captain to the point of making him dinner or purchasing him gifts."

Where other countries rank on the power-distance spectrum

Malaysia has the highest PDI, at 104. Compared to the United States, at 40, power relations in Malaysia are dramatically different from relation in the U.S.

Most Arab nations rank on the higher end for power-distance relations. Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all have a PDI of 80, which is considered high, according to Hofstede's Power Distance Index rankings.

Interestingly, Muslim countries of non-Arab ethnicities have a lower PDI. Pakistan, for example, has a PDI of 55 and Iran has a PDI of 58, in the mid-range.

Israel has one of the lowest PDI's, at 13.

Korean power-distance relations and airline crashes

In looking back at the 1999 Korean Air crash, Washington Post writes that the pilot spoke to the first officer in a "derogatory" manner and initially failed to trust  his judgment, despite the fact that the first officer was communicating correct information, telling him "make sure you understand what ground control is before you speak."

In the recent Asiana Airlines crash, cockpit recordings show silence minutes before the flight, indicating that the pilot and the co-pilot didn't communicate about their impending danger, even as they realized that the flight was in danger, reports The Los Angeles Times.

There's still much to learn about the SFO crash and how the crew was communicating. Were power-relations an issue in the Asiana crash? Time will tell as details emerge.

The crash claimed two young Chinese girls in their teens and left dozens more passengers injured.

 



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