Friday, 12 July 2013

Korea's Air Safety Saga Revisited

About a year ago I wrote a post about communication culture and air safety within the context of Korean Air's attempt to improve its formerly woeful safety record. I had more or less forgotten about the post until last weekend, when its hits shot through the roof following the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in San Francisco on Saturday. One reader responded with the following comment:
"Whew, this article helped calm my nerves immensely as my 14 year old gets ready to fly out on Korean Air after today's crash in San Francisco with Asiana. Thanks!"

As of today, the investigation into the crash of the Asiana 214 on landing at San Francisco International Airport, which killed two passengers and injured 182, is ongoing and the cause of the disaster has yet to be identified. What is known is that for whatever reason the Boeing 777's descent into SFO was too low and too slow and that the plane struck the sea wall at the end of the runway before losing the tail section of the plane and spinning out of control on the runway.

Thus far the most disturbing finding has been that of the two Chinese adolescents who died in the disaster, one was actually struck by an airport firetruck rushing to the scene, although it is not yet known if she was alive at the time. Other reporters have questioned why there was an apparent delay in the evacuation of the plane following the crash. The latest findings suggest there were no mechanical problems with the plane, putting the putting the focus of the safety probe squarely on the two pilots, of whom one was landing the 777 for the first time at SFO and the other was a relatively inexperienced training captain.

While it's still to early to say for sure, for the time being it appears likely that pilot error of one sort or another is the primary cause of the crash. Not surprisingly, the advent of the Asiana 214 disaster led some commentators familiar with South Korea's checkered air safety history to wonder aloud if this latest disaster represents a re-emergence of an old problem of fatal cockpit communication breakdowns rooted in an authoritarian aviation culture. As I outlined in my August 2012 post about Korean Air, it was the deadly crash of Korean Air Cargo Flight 8509 outside London that precipitated vast, sweeping changes to the airline's training practices.

Since the advent of Korean Air's human resource management reforms, South Korea's flagship airline has enjoyed a virtually spotless safety record - and a vastly improved reputation. Meanwhile, its main rival and the country's second-largest carrier Asiana (which also had its safety rating briefly downgraded by the FAA in 1999 together with KAL) has also enjoyed a growing reputation for both customer service and safety over the same period. Between 1999 and 2013, Asiana has experienced only two serious incidents - a near-miss over Los Angeles due to an ATC error and a crash of a cargo 747 off Jeju Island resultant from a cargo fire - neither of which were the result of pilot error.

While NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman has stated that she intends to look into communication between the pilot and co-pilot during the flight, thus far there appears to be no evidence that the crash of Asiana 214 was the result of poor cockpit communication. A Washington Post article suggests the two men were indeed communicating effectively and had decided to abort the landing within seconds of the warning bells sounding. Meanwhile, the US media's quickness to question whether Korea's traditionally hierarchical culture was to blame for the crash drew ire from many Koreans. One unidentified airline pilot was quoted in South Korea's Chosun Ilbo daily as follows:

"It's true that captains acted in an authoritarian way in the cockpit in the past, but that's almost nonexistent now. It's unimaginable for a captain to ignore the first officer in an emergency."

Regardless of how the Asiana 214 inquiry turns out, it appears that South Korea's much-vaunted air safety culture reforms of the late-nineties have indeed proven to be the "real deal" and that bad communication was not the killer in the case of Flight 214 to San Francisco. And while it may well turn out that Captain Lee Kang-kook and First Officer Lee Jeong-min (who was flying the plane at the time) made mistakes that caused one of the worst passenger air disaster in recent memory, it would appear that there was nothing intrisically Korean (or Asian) about their errors.

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