Follow-up: December 18, 2013
BACK IN JULY, Slate magazine published my take on the Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco. What went wrong, and why? Did pilot experience play a role? Were the challenges of SFO airport a factor? And what about the safety of Korean air carriers? You can read it here.
The article ran only a day or two after the accident, when relatively little was known. One of the issues I took on was whether or not there is something inherently dysfunctional in the training cultures of Korean air carriers. Shortly after the accident, a series of email testimonials began spreading around the Internet, allegedly written by U.S. pilots who worked in Korea or had trained Korean pilots there, vouching for their poor performance — shortcomings that stemmed from a rigidly hierarchical and authoritative cockpit culture.
Initially I dismissed such concerns as outdated. In the 1990s, after a series of accidents, Korea spent a lot of time and money bringing in Western advisers and overhauling its civil aviation system. This included its cockpit training standards. By 2008, an assessment by ICAO said Korean aviation was, overall, the safest in the world, ahead of more than a hundred other countries. Those “culture” issues were a thing of the past.
Or so it seemed. Recent revelations from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, however, are dismaying.
The NTSB findings, presented to the media last week, describe one of the Asiana first officers, who’d been sitting in one of the cockpit jumpseats, neglecting to recommend a go-around, even when the aircraft was in clear danger of crashing, out of deference to the more senior pilots at the controls. And despite the glare of the sun, the pilot performing the approach and landing had opted not to wear sunglasses, in fear that this would somehow “disrespect” the instructor pilot sitting next to him.
“That is very hard to explain” the first officer told investigators. “That is our culture.”
Well, maybe, but such a mindset has no place in the cockpit of a commercial airliner, and such protocols are pretty much unheard of in the United States and most other countries.
Korean aviation is certainly safe, and I would never go so far as to recommend that passengers avoid Korean carriers outright. But it may not be as safe as it could be, and clearly the country needs to take a harder look at the way its pilots are trained.
The rest of what I discussed in the original Slate story holds true. For me, one of the most problematic aspects to the whole thing is the way in which the media seized on the incident, turning a comparatively small-scale crash in which only three people were killed into a days-long media circus. Granted it’s a tragedy when anybody is killed in a plane crash, but this sort of hyperbole is in many ways disrespectful to the hundreds of people who perished in far worse accidents — the kinds of accidents that we rarely see anymore — and it causes the public to lose all sense of scale and perspective when it comes to air safety.
Here’s a question: Imagine for a moment that the Asiana 777 had flipped over and exploded, and 250 people had been killed instead of three. How would the media coverage have differed? The disturbing answer, I fear, is that it wouldn’t have differed at all.