Asiana Flight 214: We Can't Seriously Blame Korean Culture For the Crash


As investigators continue to examine the training and experience of the cockpit crew of Asiana 214 that crashed Saturday in San Francisco, scrutiny has now shifted to something more subtle: Korean culture. 

NBC News asks if Korea's "authoritarian culture" and preservation of hierarchy could have been the cause for the pilots lack of communication during landing.

Here's what we know so far:

It was pilot Lee Kang-kuk's first time landing a Boeing 777 at San Francisco International Airport. 

As Asiana Airlines Flight 214 approached the airport 400 feet above San Francisco Bay, it was flying too low and too slow that should have prompted the pilot to abort the landing and make another attempt, according to aviation experts

Lee, however, didn't abort and failed to discuss the predicament with his more experienced co-pilot, Lee Jung-min, who had more hours flying 777s into San Francisco. 

According to cockpit voice recordings, the two didn't communicate until less than 2 seconds before the plane struck a sea wall and then slammed into the runway.

Their lack of communication has now prompted further scrutiny into the possibility of "pilot error" and leading many media outlets to question whether culture could be factor. 

According to CNBC's Heesun Wee: "In the Korean language, you speak to superiors and elders in an honorific form that requires more words and can be more oblique than in English, for example. It's less, "Yo! You want water?"; and more, "It's a warm day for a nice refreshment, no?" This may sound trivial. But put this in the context of a cockpit, where seconds and decision-making are crucial, and communication and culture can matter."

She also points out that South Korea's aviation industry "has faced skepticism about its safety and pilot habits since a few deadly crashes beginning in the 1980s. But despite changes, including an improved safety record, Korea's aviation sector remains rooted in a national character that's largely about preserving hierarchy — and asking few questions of those in authority."

Other media outlets including CNN and National Geographic have also jumped on the speculation band wagon. 

According to CNN's Kyung Lah, "social hierarchy and deference to elders are paramount in Korean culture."

National Geographic cited Malcolm Gladwell's theory of cockpit culture from his 2008 bestseller Outliers that points out "the poor safety record of Korean Air - The Asian country's largest carrier - in the 1980s and 1990s, including several fatal crashes."

Now let's get to the facts.

The most recent crash involving a South Korean carrier was in 1997, when a Korean Air 747 slammed into a hill while approaching the airport in Guam that prompted a downgrade of South Korea's aviation rating by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to category 2. 

However, the rating was restored to category 1 in December 2001, which allowed Korean carriers to open new routes in the U.S. and resume marketing alliances with American carriers, in December that year.

Since then, Asiana was ranked among the top five global airlines by Skytrax in each of the past five years.

I don't discount the possibility of pilot error or any other possible factors that could have contributed to the lapse in communication between the two pilots.

However, to make assumptions based on decades-old data and a cultural respect for elders makes the argument more sensational than factual. 

It's going to take months, even years to fully conclude what exactly happened in that cockpit and what caused this terrible tragedy. But to place blame right now on a culture based on the argument that they respect their elders is premature at best.

According to airline pilot, Patrick Smith: "Korean aviation is very different today, following a systemic and very expensive overhaul of the nation’s civil aviation system."

He also cites a 2008 assessment by ICAO, the civil aviation branch of the United Nations, that "ranked Korea's aviation safety standards, including its pilot training standards, as nothing less than the highest in the world, beating out more than 100 other countries."

"Whatever happened on final approach into SFO, I highly doubt that it was anything related to the culture of Korean air safety in 2013," Smith wrote. "Plane crashes are increasingly rare the world over. But they will continue to happen from time to time, and no airline or country is 100% immune.