Korean culture may offer clues in Asiana crash

Asiana Airlines Chief Executive Yoon Young-doo said the carrier has plans to improve training for its pilots.
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Asiana Airlines Chief Executive Yoon Young-doo said the carrier has plans to improve training for its pilots.

Investigators combing through the debris and data recordings from the Asiana Airlines jet that crashed in San Francisco Saturday may learn more about what happened inside the cockpit of the Boeing 777 aircraft by studying an unlikely clue: Korean culture.

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 improved safety records, Korea's aviation sector remains rooted in a national character that's largely about preserving hierarchy—and asking few questions.

"The Korean culture has two features—respect for seniority and age, and quite an authoritarian style," said Thomas Kochan, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "You put those two together, and you may get more one-way communication—and not a lot of it upward," Kochan said.

The Asiana pilots on Flight 214 apparently did not discuss their predicament, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing cockpit voice recordings.

As a general point of reference about the Korean language, you speak to superiors and elders in an honorific form that requires more words and can be more oblique. 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 you get an idea of how communication and culture matter.

Of course, the investigation of the flight from Seoul, South Korea, on Saturday is ongoing. It will be months before it will be known what exactly happened inside that cockpit, and what was communicated.

But as the details unravel, expect Korea's cockpit culture and training to be scrutinized further. With two Chinese teenagers dead and 180 injured out of the more than 300 people on board, the crash offers an abrupt reflection on South Korea's tarnished aviation legacy, which officials there had hoped was behind them.

On Tuesday, Asiana Airlines Chief Executive Yoon Young-doo said the carrier has plans to improve training for its pilots. He said the pilot and co-pilot on the aircraft were qualified. The two pilots on the plane have enough qualifications, having flown to San Francisco 33 times and 29 times respectively,'' he said.

It was pilot Lee Gang-guk's first time landing a Boeing 777 at San Francisco International Airport. Lee Jung-min, the senior co-pilot in the cockpit with the younger Lee, had more experience flying 777s into San Francisco.

Investigators Interviewing Crew

Investigators have started interviewing the Asiana crew, and hope to wrap up interviews Tuesday, Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash, told CNBC Tuesday. The 46-year-old pilot behind the controls will be interviewed later Tuesday, said Hersman.

A long-standing flying adage is: aviate, navigate, communicate. "You have to have great communication among people in a team, especially in high-risk environments," said Kochan, also co-director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research.

(Read More: NTSB Focuses on Final Minutes Before Plane Crash)

A Boeing 777 airplane lies burned on the runway after it crash landed at San Francisco International Airport July 6, 2013 in San Francisco, California.
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A Boeing 777 airplane lies burned on the runway after it crash landed at San Francisco International Airport July 6, 2013 in San Francisco, California.

South Korea, meanwhile, is considering tightening regulations for pilots, seeking certification to convert to flying new aircraft after the Asiana crash, a government source said Tuesday.

Military Trend

Asiana was founded in 1988, in part to address increased travel for the Summer Olympic Games in Seoul that year. It was a key moment of pride—the country's second carrier along with its larger, older rival Korean Air.

"It was such a prestigious thing to have two national carriers," said John S. Park, an expert on the Koreas. "Then you had a number of crashes. So you didn't see the culture change all that much," said Park, a Stanton Nuclear Security junior faculty fellow at the MIT.

The crash Saturday was Asiana's third accident involving fatalities since its founding. As data recordings were collected on those crashes, a trend emerged. "What came up was the military culture in which the South Korean pilots grew up in," Park said.

Young men in South Korea must serve mandatory military service, so some air force veterans transition to civilian aviation careers. (Some American veterans, who have served after Sept. 11, are also transitioning into aviation jobs.)

But sometimes that transition into the private sector comes with military baggage.

Korea's authoritarian structure, not surprisingly, is reflected in its industries including aviation, where co-pilots traditionally have not been encouraged to challenge senior pilots. Military training only adds to constant self-awareness about where you are in an organization's pecking order—and not speaking out of turn.

"No one can really point out anything related to errors," said Park of the country's military legacy. While workplace trends are modernizing, many Korean companies still promote and reward seniority—over merit and achievements. And it's this constant reminder of a pecking order that can grip a military unit, an aviation cockpit—even a national soccer system.

In 2002, South Korea became the only Asian nation to make the World Cup tournament's semifinal round of four after a foreigner—Guus Hiddink, a Dutch coach—squashed cronyism and rewarded players on talent. "They couldn't have made a successful team under the old Korean leadership, said Choe Yong Ho, a University of Hawaii emeritus history professor, at the time.

South Korea's aviation industry has brought in new blood, too. After the crashes during the '80s, Western pilots were hired to bring in fresh blood and ideas. But a culture shift did not come for a fatal 1997 Korean Air flight.

(Read More: Entrepreneur Retrains Veterans as Helicopter Pilots)

Flight to Guam

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, killing 225 people and later prompting a downgrade of South Korea's aviation rating by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to category 2.

The rating was restored to Category 1 in December 2001, enabling Korean carriers to open new routes, which they were not allowed to do under the lower category.

In a chapter titled "The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes," author Malcolm Gladwell in "Outliers" dissects the flight recorder transcript of the final minutes of KAL Flight 801 between the captain and first officer. As the weather worsened among other factors, Gladwell argues culture influenced the way in which they communicated. The first officer politely referred to "weather radar"—instead of using a more direct, Western-style of communication, i.e., "there's trouble ahead, captain."

In 2000, a Delta Air Lines executive was brought in to run KAL's flight operations. The Delta executive made aviation English a priority, Gladwell notes. He also brought in Alteon, a subsidiary of Boeing, to take over company training and instruction programs. A Boeing spokesman declined to comment on that KAL training given the ongoing nature of the current Asiana investigation.

As Korean pilots broadly have worked to improve operations, Korean flight attendants undergo rigorous training with constant evaluation. The Asiana crew on Flight 214 are being praised for their timely response. Clad in high-heeled pumps and pencil skirts, the women coolly carried out rescue tasks, NBC News reported. "It's remarkable that on one plane you can have two different cultures," said Park, an MIT fellow.

'Transition Training'

The larger question for investigators is how on a good weather day, an experienced Asiana crew—including a senior pilot with experience landing advanced 777s on the flight from Seoul to San Francisco—was flying too slow, and clipped the end of the runway before crashing. Early information from data recordings suggests no mechanical problems, NTSB's Hersman said.

"We really do need to understand, 'Who was the pilot in command?' 'Who was the pilot flying at the time?' 'What kind of conversations were they having?' " Hersman told CNBC Monday. "There is an expectation that anyone who's putting themselves out there to provide passenger service meets minimum safety standards," she said in an additional CNBC interview Tuesday.

The key pilot in question, Lee, had logged 43 hours flying the 777 over nine flights. It was his first landing of a 777 at SFO. It takes 60 hours and 10 flights to be considered fully qualified, the airline told NBC News. When a pilot learns a new type of aircraft, the status before full qualification is known as transition training.

Lee had a long, otherwise untarnished career, including nearly 9,700 hours clocked flying the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737 and 747, NBC News reported. The senior co-pilot had more than 3,000 hours on the 777.

(Read More: Captain of Crashed San Francisco Plane Was 'in Training')

NBC News, the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

By CNBC's Heesun Wee; Follow her on Twitter @heesunwee.