Asiana Airlines Crash — How Culture Can Impact Performance
On July 6th 2013, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash-landed at San Francisco airport [l]. It is still not clear whether the crash was due to pilot error or to defective equipment, but what we do know at this stage is that the speed of the aircraft was too low when approaching the runway. The airplane stalled [l] and it was not possible to control it any longer, resulting in the rear section hitting the sea wall. Why did the aircraft fly too slowly? Modern jetliners (like the Boeing 777s pictured below) have many automatic controls to help the pilots in their landing approach. One of those is the auto-throttle (also referred to as AT). What is known is that the auto-throttle switch was armed at the correct speed by one of the pilots, but ended up not being engaged. It is not clear if this was due to the pilot forgetting to engage the AT or due to some faulty operation of the device itself. We may never know all the details as investigations of airplane crashes are not always fully disclosed to the general public to minimize lawsuits.

 The crash site of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco airport. This image is a work of a National Transportation Safety Board employee, taken or made as part of an employee's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, all NTSB images are in the public domain.

Nonetheless, some of my colleagues believe that the crash may be due to seniority values having had a negative impact on cockpit communication. It's well known amongst airline pilots that airlines based in countries with a strong Confucist background (i.e. Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Hong-Kong) are particularly prone to this problem: i.e., it's very difficult for a pilot to contradict another pilot with more seniority in the cockpit even when the junior pilot is certain that the senior is making a mistake. This problem is further exacerbated when the crew communicates in Korean or Japanese due to the strong honorifics in those languages essentially making it impossible to disobey a senior's orders (Korean and Japanese have 5 politeness levels built in the grammar compared to only 2 in French — vous et tu — and 1 in English and Chinese). Interestingly, this “seniority” problem in the cockpit does not affect as much airlines based in mainland China because Confucianism has essentially been eradicated during the Communist era (Communist values are opposed to Confucist values) and because the Chinese language has minimal honorifics. By training the crew in English and/or by ensuring that at least one of the crew members is not Korean or Japanese, Japan Airlines and Korean Airlines managed to significantly improve their safety records in the 2000s. Perhaps Asiana Airlines should adopt a similar strategy.

The crash was an eye-opener for many on the impact of culture on performance at work. This is not to say that Confucianism and language honorifics are necessarily bad in a working environment. In fact, I believe that the strong respect for position that we witness in Korea and Japan can actually be beneficial in many working environments, especially in the larger service-oriented companies such as Shinsegae, Lotte, Takashimaya, etc. However, in some cases (such as in the cockpit of an airliner or in a university research laboratory for instance) a too-strong respect for position may lead to a loss of efficiency and performance.
 08.31.13
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