Gladwell’s Ethnic Theory Proven by SF Plane Crash?

The San Francisco plane crash that happened this past weekend was extremely unfortunate. It was also very surprising given how rarely plane crashes occur each year, but it does provoke some interesting points that Malcolm Gladwell made in his novel, Outliers, that perhaps should be taken into serious consideration.

According to Gladwell, a large percentage of the plane crashes that do occur are a direct result of miscommunication and language issues —  either among pilots in the cockpit and between air traffic controllers and pilots.  He even goes so far as to propose an “Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes” which suggests that how good of a pilot you are has a lot to do with which culture you were raised in. Gladwell compares Asian airlines to American ones, and explained in a Q&A with Fortune Magazine:

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 (BAFortune 500) 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.

I use the case study of a very famous plane crash in Guam of Korean Air. They’re flying along, and they run into a little bit of trouble, the weather’s bad. The pilot makes an error, and the co-pilot doesn’t correct him. But once Korean Air figured out that their problem was cultural, they fixed it.

Gladwell’s attributes pilot error, particularly on Korean airlines, to the country’s authoritarian culture, which has the tendency to negatively effect the pilot teamwork “needed to fly Western-built jets” because co-captains are too afraid to speak up and tell their superiors when they are making a mistake. This makes it extremely difficult and dangerous when dealing with an emergency.

In Outliers, Gladwell also discusses the 10-thousand-hour-rule, which you can hear him talk about in his interview with CNN. The idea behind this rule is: you’d have to essentially be an apprentice and work on your craft for approximately 10 thousand hours in order to be considered great at what you do. Interestingly, the pilot in the SF plane crash, identified as Lee Kang-kook, had nearly 10,000 hours of experience flying planes; however, only 43 of those hours were spent flying the 777 model (ABC).

In the effort to minimize crashes, Airlines across the globe have been working to improve pilot-co-pilot teamwork efforts. It is becoming more and more common for co-pilots to address superiors by first name, and airilnes are teaching them how to be more assertive and get more comfortable with pushing back, particularly in emergency situations. In turn, head pilots are learning to work collaboratively aboard their planes by operating as organizers, negotiators and facilitators, rather than as dominant commanders. The goal is to make it easier for first officers to speak up in order to correct any mistakes caused by the main pilot.

Interviews with the 4 pilots on the Asiana plane are currently still being decrypted from Korean to English. It will be very telling when those interviews are released what happened — whether or not there was some sort of miscommunication or a last second decision that was made in error — that led to the crash (2 deaths and 183 injured).

I really think that Gladwell’s theory has some validity to it, which is unfortunate because the aim is not to strengthen ethnic divides; however, the positive outlook on this is that we can continue to learn and correct our mistakes no matter what ethnic group we are a part of.

 

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