Although in the past couple of decades the overall accident rate for commercial aviation has remained about the same, the data recordings from the Asiana Airlines jet crash in San Francisco may reveal more about what actually happened inside the cockpit of the Boeing 777 aircraft by studying an unlikely clue: Korean culture.
In fact, recent studies indicate that in certain cultures the approach to communication in the cockpit contributes to aircraft accident rates. For example, the general culture within the Korea’s aviation sector remains strongly rooted in the national character that’s largely about preserving hierarchy—and asking few questions. “The Korean culture has two features—respect for seniority and age, and quite an authoritarian style,” said Thomas Kochan, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “You put those two together, and you may get more one-way communication—and not a lot of it upward,” added Kochan.
In 70% of the airline accidents studied, someone in the cockpit knew there was a problem, yet was unable to find a way to communicate it. With the flattening of hierarchy, communication flowed increasingly freely despite rank/position and, as it became more common to double-check the other team member’s work, less and less stigma was associated with noting a discrepancy. Improved communication and cross checking had a strongly positive effect on the level of safety and, along with similar changes in the ground crew and aircraft maintenance sectors, made the airline industry one of the safest of the high risk industries.
Today the majority of research into human factors in aviation is conducted by institutions in North America and Western Europe. As a result, much of this research is centred around the U.S. and European operations and operators. The strongest cross-cultural differences found by Merritt were in the areas of command (Hofstede’s dimension of Power Distance) and flexibility with regard to rules and routines (Uncertainty Avoidance). Pilots from “Anglo” countries (the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and Britain including the pilots who were born in the latter and then worked in Hong Kong) held very similar views, while amongst the non-Anglo countries, the more hierarchical command styles were differentiated by the relative importance allocated to rank (Brazil), rules (Taiwan), and relationships (Philippines). The unequivocal finding of the study was that national culture is powerful and regulations generally reflect an awareness of its role.
‘For example, Boeing 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,” said Malcom Gladwell. The aforementioned aircraft accident was caused by several factors, and the high hierarchical distance between the captain and the co‐pilot was the most important one.
According to Gladwell, the representatives of the non-Western culture are exceptionally subject to remarkable hierarchy factor. For instance, a co‐pilot is often not able (“unable or unwilling”) to express his opinion, in other words he cannot assertively communicate information related to crucial aspects of flight management to build safe environment.
Despite the fact that Management (CRM) and Multi-Crew Cooperation specialists are increasingly focusing on avoiding such cultural and sociological elements affecting the cockpit and cabin crews, cross-cultures still play the major role. Training in interpersonal skills and communication in a team does not always bring satisfying results and aviation companies, as well as pilots themselves, often lack professional culture at the workplace. Even though the behaviour inside the cockpit is already sufficiently standardized, it can still create stressful and unpleasant situations. These may result in unsafe flights unless pilots learn to stop focusing on their cultural habits in an inappropriate place and time.