In the period 1988 to 1998, the average loss rate for an American airline was .27 per million departures. This means they lost a plane in an accident about once in every four million flights. In the same period, the loss rate for Korean Air was 4.79 per million departures – in other words, it was more than 17 times more likely to experience a plane crash.
The reputation of Korean Air was so bad that in 1999 Delta Air Lines and Air France decided to suspend their partnership with the airline. The US army forbade its troops in South Korea from flying with Korean Air and Canadian officials considered revoking the company’s overflight and landing privileges in Canadian airspace.
The airline became a national embarrassment for South Korea and something needed to be done. But what? There seemed to be no major technical issues with the planes; they were regular Boeing and Airbus types. A leaked audit report revealed poor morale and training standards. And most experts agreed that these were important factors – however, there was something deeper to the Korean conundrum.
In 1994, the American plane manufacturer Boeing published safety data showing a clear correlation between a country’s plane crashes and its score on an intercultural survey conducted by famous Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede. South Korea scored high on the so-called “Power Distance” dimension, which indicates the social distance between superiors and subordinates. Power Distance (PD) is another expression for “hierarchy”; high PD means strong hierarchy while low PD means flat hierarchies.
Indeed, when one analyzed the data from the flight recorder of the troubled Korean Air planes what became clear was that there was a lack of cooperation between the pilot and co-pilot. In several cases, the co-pilot was aware of an adverse situation but failed to clearly and assertively communicate it to the pilot. In fact, research into plane crashes has shown that most plane crashes are due to errors of teamwork and communication. Moreover, most crashes occur when the more experienced pilot – not the co-pilot – is flying. But according to flight experts, the flight-desk design is intended to be operated by two people and it works best when both are actively checking each other.
The kind of passive behavior that the Korean Air co-pilots exhibited is common for subordinates in high PD countries. Interestingly, the flight recorders also revealed that the junior pilots used mitigated and indirect speech when informing the senior pilot about some acute danger. Linguists refer to speech mitigation to denote a communication style that sort of downplays or sugarcoats what is being said. It is exactly the kind of communication style one should not be using when one wants to warn someone about a dangerous situation. Indirect speech is also very common in high PD societies and generally does not help in raising awareness in others about impending perils.
So how did Korean Air tackle these deep-seated cultural root causes of their plane crashes? Basically, by waging a war on Power Distance. Training was introduced that focused on making the subordinate co-pilot more assertive and clear in his communication with the senior pilot. For example, Korean Air taught its co-pilots a standardized procedure with different levels of urgency for challenging the pilot if something has gone awry. Of course, the pilots were also trained in decoding these messages. The levels were:
“Captain, I am concerned about…”
“Captain, I am uncomfortable with…”
“Captain, I believe the situation is unsafe.”
If these three levels failed to spur the pilot into action, the co-pilot would be authorized to take over the plane. The success of this war on mitigation and indirect speech is what accounts for the greatest part of the significant decline in airline accidents in recent years, as aviation experts will tell you. The fact that the Korean Air trainings used English as lingua franca also helped overcome cultural barriers. It allowed the subordinates to more easily step out of their culturally defined roles.
Consequently, since 1999, Korean Air’s safety record is spotless. The airline was even given the Phoenix Award by Air Transport World in 2006 in recognition of its transformation. Today Korean Air is considered as safe as any airline in the world.
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