When, on Wednesday, a reporter asked National Transportation Safety Board chairman Deborah Hersman about the role of pilot "deference" in the Asiana 214 plane crash, the conversation turned to a media speculation meme that's been bubbling about the deadly incident for about 24 hours: could the fact that the pilots were Korean have anything to do with their behavior leading up to the crash?
Hersman, as you might expect, refused to throw any weight behind that speculation today. For one thing, that leap assumes that the pilots are at fault, and the NTSB is still on-site, conducting an investigation to determine probable cause that won't be finished for months. But there's a reason the theory came to mind so quickly for many: it's based on an essay by Malcolm Gladwell, which itself is based on data from Korean Air crashes in the '80s and '90s. Here's Gladwell, summarizing his theory from Outliers with Fortune:
F: You share a fascinating story about culture and airline safety.
G: Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for a period at the end of the 1990s. When we think of airline crashes, we think, Oh, they must have had old planes. They must have had badly trained pilots. No. What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.
But 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.
We asked Malcolm Gladwell for his thoughts on the use of his essay in the particular context of the Asiana crash. "I can understand why my Outliers chapter has been of interest, given how central cockpit communication issues are in plane crashes," Gladwell told The Atlantic Wire in an email, adding, "My sense is that we should wait for the full report on the crash before drawing any conclusions about its cause." As for the applicability of his work to the recent Asiana crash, Gladwell noted that his essay was specific to the problems (and solutions) of one airline — Korean Air, "which I think did an extraordinary job of addressing the cultural issues involved in pilot communication. This was a crash involving a completely different airline," he said.
On Wednesday, CNN re-aired part of a 2009 interview with Gladwell about his essay, as part of their "just raising questions" approach to using the essay to explain the Asiana crash. The argument has been popular among many outlets since the slow trickle of details from the NTSB on their investigation began. Among the evidence cited? The flight attendent who said that she asked the pilot about starting an evacuation after the crash, but was told to wait. The quiet of the cockpit on flight recorders, indicating little communication. The unequal standing between the man flying the plane — a trainee — and his more experienced mentor in the seat next to him.
In his chapter on Korean Air, Gladwell explains how the airline identified and altered the problem, a fact that's nearly as important to his essay as the cultural role itself. Here's an excerpt from Outliers:
But then a small miracle happened. Korean Air turned itself around. Today, the airline is a member in good standing of the prestigious SkyTeam alliance. Its safety record since 1999 is spotless. In 2006, Korean Air was given the Phoenix Award by Air Transport World in recognition of its transformation. Aviation experts will tell you that Korean Air is now as safe as any airline in the world.
Compared to Korean Air, Asiana is a much smaller carrier. The company has a record of two other fatal crashes since its founding in 1988. One, in 1993, was blamed on pilot error after an inquiry concluded that the plane began a descent in poor visibility while still flying over a mountain. The other fatal crash happened two years ago, and was due to mechanical problems.
Based on the public information so far, it certainly looks like investigators are looking into the possibility of pilot error, among other things, in their search for answers. But there's far from anything approaching enough evidence to support a leap to the "deference" theory as the deciding factor in this crash, at least at this point. Based on the account of the senior training pilot relayed on Tuesday, he only noticed the slow speed of the plane 200 feet in the air, too late to do very much to avoid a disaster. And today, the trainee pilot flying the plane gave investigators another factor in the story: he was, apparently, blinded by a bright light 34 seconds before landing.