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Gladwell describes the 1997 crash of Korean Air Flight 801. The pilot was experienced and in good health. The aircraft was in perfect working order. As the flight approached Guam, the Ground Proximity Warning System alerted the pilot that the plane was within five hundred feet of the ground. Unable to see the runway in the rain, the first officer suggested aborting the landing and circling around for another attempt. The captain, however, was slow to respond. Before the plane could recover altitude, it hit the side of nearby Nimitz Hill, killing 228 of the 254 passengers.
In the twenty years prior to that crash, Korean Air lost at least six other planes. Compared to United Airlines, from 1988 to 1998, the loss rate for Korean Air was seventeen times higher. In April of 1999, Delta Air Lines and Air France suspended their partnership with Korean Air over safety concerns. But shortly after, Korean Air’s record changed completely. Since 1999, they have had a spotless safety record. Gladwell states that understanding the crash of Flight 801 requires a look at flight records, weather patterns, and the conversation captured by the cockpit voice recorder. What saved Korean Air, according to Gladwell, was a willingness to reckon with a cultural legacy.
Plane crashes usually result from the accumulation of many small errors, typically errors of teamwork or communication (or both), rather than a catastrophic malfunction. One example studied in flight schools is the 1990 crash of a Colombian airliner, Avianca flight 052. Waiting to land at New York’s Kennedy airport, the flight was forced to circle for over an hour. Since the autopilot was malfunctioning, the captain had to land the plane manually. After a wind shear problem on the first attempt, the captain tried a “go-around,” but the plane ran out of fuel and crashed.
Suren Ratwatte, a veteran pilot and an expert on the role of “human factors” in crashes, notes that the Avianca pilot was tired and could have asked to be rerouted. The copilot is almost entirely absent from the cockpit transcript, despite being responsible for all communication with Air Traffic Control (ATC). He does tell ATC that he thinks the plane is low on fuel, but apparently, he and the pilot mistakenly interpret the ATC reply that they are “Cleared to the Kennedy airport” to mean that they are moved to the front of the landing queue, when in fact they are merely added to it.
The relative silence in the cockpit is unusual. Rattwatte describes having to land a plane in Helsinki, short of its destination, due to a passenger’s medical emergency. His plane was over maximum landing weight due to fuel, and he was unfamiliar with the airport. While preparing to land, Ratwatte constantly communicated with Helsinki ATC, his copilot, two doctors aboard the plane, and other members of his flight crew, and they were encouraging and calming as they shared information as clearly as possible with each other.
In the Avianca 052 flight transcript, right after the aborted first landing attempt, the captain orders the copilot to tell ATC that they are in an emergency. The copilot calmly informs ATC of a change in heading and adds the information about fuel almost as an afterthought. He says nothing about an emergency. An air traffic controller who handled the flight remarked on a lack of urgency in his voice.
The copilot used what linguists call “mitigated speech”—polite and deferential. Two linguists, Ute Fischer and Judith Orasanu, used a hypothetical scenario to identify six different levels of mitigated speech between airplane crew members, ranging from a direct command (no mitigation) down to merely hinting at a problem, without any suggested course of action. Fischer and Orasanu found that captains regularly used commands when addressing their copilots, but copilots often spoke in hints to pilots, their superiors.
In another transcript, from a 1982 crash, the copilot mentions three times that the wings are covered in ice, but his speech is all hints. The pilot ignores the information and takes off. The plane plunges into the Potomac River moments later. Since the late 1990s, great efforts have been made to combat mitigation in commercial aviation. Subordinate crew members are even given scripted statements to use, like: “Captain, I’m concerned about…” or “Captain, I’m uncomfortable with.…” Reduced mitigation is the main reason for the decrease in airline accidents in recent years.
As Avianca flight 052 turns away from the airport to try another pass, the captain asks the copilot if he has informed ATC of their emergency. The copilot makes another mitigated statement to ATC, still not using the word emergency. When ATC specifically asks if the plane is “okay” with fuel, the copilot responds, “I guess so.” Minutes later, the engines fail and the plane crashes.
Ratwatte explains that New York controllers handle a high traffic volume under stressful conditions and often come off as rude. They will snap at flight crews, expecting that in an emergency, the flight crews will snap back. The Avianca pilot and copilot were intimidated. They should have clearly stated that they could not comply with the controller’s request and needed to land immediately. Gladwell suggests that their failure to do so may have something to do with the fact that both pilots were Colombian.
While working for IBM in Europe, Geert Hofstede, a Dutch psychologist, developed a database to analyze cultural differences. “Hofstede’s Dimensions” rate countries using various measurement scales, such as “individualism-collectivism” and “uncertainty avoidance.” Power Distance Index (PDI), one of the scales most relevant to plane crashes, indicates how likely individuals from a given country are to push back against authority. The United States’ PDI is very low, while Colombia’s is very high. (A “low” PDI means more likely to push back against authority while a “high” PDI means less likely.) On Avianca flight 052, an American copilot would probably have been much more likely to argue with ATC or even the pilot. The Colombian copilot was less likely to assume the burden of resolving the crisis, and more likely to adopt the role of subordinate in speaking with the controller. His mitigated phrasing made ATC think that there was no serious problem.
The second highest PDI country in the world, after Brazil, is South Korea.
Malcolm Brenner, a leading investigator with the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), was part of the team that reviewed the Korean Air 801 crash. Because of an equipment outage at the airport, the crew needed to land the plane visually, after using the airport’s VOR beacon (a radio beacon used in navigation) to get within visual range. Guam’s VOR beacon is located on Nimitz Hill, not at the actual airport, but the pilot knew this and even mentioned it in the preflight briefing. He did not, however, have a backup plan, and as he approached Guam, he was very tired.
At the time, in South Korean flight crew culture, the pilot was in complete command and everyone else was highly deferential. Junior officers might buy the captain gifts, and it would not be unheard of for a captain to physically strike a subordinate for a mistake. In the Flight 801 transcript of the Guam approach, after the pilot says he is tired, the copilot remarks on the heavy rainfall in the region. He is trying, in the most deferential way possible, to draw attention to the bad weather and the difficulties of a visual approach with no backup plan. When Guam comes in sight, the flight engineer says that the weather radar has been very helpful, but he is trying to point out that the weather radar shows trouble ahead. Western communication is “transmitter oriented”: the speaker must make sure that the message is understood, repeating as necessary. Given Korea’s high-PDI, “receiver-oriented” communication culture, the co-pilot and flight engineer of Flight 801 would expect the captain to bring up any lack of understanding, but he is too exhausted to pay close attention.
In 2000, Korean Air brought in David Greenberg, from Delta Air Lines, to run their flight operations. He required all Korean Air pilots to be, or become, fluent in English, the international language of air traffic control. Speaking English also made it easier for the flight crews to free themselves from the cultural legacy that limited their ability to confront one another.
As the VOR beacon leads Flight 801 into the side of Nimitz Hill, the Ground Proximity Warning System alerts the crew that they are dangerously close to the ground. The crew is confused, having forgotten that the beacon is not by the runway. The copilot recommends a “missed approach.” The flight engineer says, “Go around.” The Proximity Warning System counts down the distance to the ground until impact. The crash investigation determined that the copilot probably could have saved the plane, if he had pulled the plane up when he first suggested a missed approach.
Cultural legacy influences success and failure, but addressing the impact can change the outcomes. Gladwell opens with a comparison of plane crashes in the movies versus plane crashes in real life, pointing out the irony that plane crashes are not typically the result of a big, dramatic problem, but an accumulation of small issues, malfunctions, and errors. As Gladwell has shown, small elements add up to create success. Small elements can also add up to create failure. The Avianca flight faced a collection of issues: poor weather, a flight delay, a minor technical malfunction, and three holding patterns. With little conversation between the pilot and co-pilot, there was a miscommunication that caused the plane to run out of gas. The crash of Korean Air Flight 801 seems ironic, since all seemed well with the pilot and the plane, yet the aircraft crashed, resulting in the deaths of 228 people. Upon investigation, Korean Air Flight 801 experienced a technical issue, a tired pilot, and bad weather. To ameliorate these issues, the crew would have needed to communicate and work together, which didn't happen. Both planes crashed because of poor communication resulting from a lack of awareness of cultural legacy.
Mitigated speech, a way of talking that shows respect to a superior or downplays meaning to prevent embarrassment or offense, offers one example of cultural legacy. Gladwell explains the seeming irony that planes are safer when the pilot with lesser experience is in charge. A less-experienced flier will use mitigated speech to defer to a pilot of higher rank. If the more experienced pilot is the one communicating, he or she is not afraid to speak up. Gladwell suggests that a strict hierarchy can be dangerous if those lower in the pecking order feel uncomfortable speaking up. This danger can be mitigated if everyone is understood to be working toward the same end, but if there are cultural concerns that keep someone from being able to speak the truth, terrible things can happen. He notes that the Avianca cockpit was too intimidated to speak up even though they knew they were running low on fuel. Ratwatte notes in his interview that an American pilot would have insisted on landing without worrying about offending anyone. Gladwell emphases the extremely polite conversation in contrast to the immediate danger on the Avianca flight. Gladwell shares bits of the flight transcript from Korean Air Flight 801, highlighting the extreme deference a member of the flight crew would show to a pilot through actions and words. In these cases, mitigated speech was not polite, but a dangerous result of cultural legacy.
Different cultures place different importance on the idea of individualism, which can, in turn, affect the idea of success. Hofstede’s Dimensions is a method that can be used to compare cultural differences, including individualism. The U.S. scores the highest on that scale. Recall that Gladwell started Outliers dispelling the myth of individual success. Gladwell notes that the scale also ranks how comfortable different cultures are with ambiguity or uncertainty avoidance. He highlights Hofstede’s Power Distance Index (PDI), which relates to views on authority. The Avianca crash appears in a different light knowing the Colombian cultural reluctance to stand up to authority. Gladwell relates the PDI to the airline industry’s concern with eliminating mitigated speech. Just as background impacts New York attorneys and Kentucky feuding families, it impacts airline pilots. By examining and addressing cultural legacy, Korean Air turned around its poor safety record. Gladwell questions why individuals have such a tough time acknowledging cultural impact on our personalities. He immediately answers the question: “Who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from—and when we ignore that fact, planes crash.” In this statement, his reference to planes crashing is both literal and metaphorical. Through an awareness of the way different cultures look at language and individualism, society can help foster successful outcomes.