Ask the pilot

Malcolm Gladwell claims cultural issues can play a big role in plane crashes. The pilot begs to differ.

Published December 5, 2008 11:25AM (EST)

It takes a certain moxie to criticize someone as bright and successful as Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker staff writer and author of the bestsellers "Blink" and "The Tipping Point." But there's a segment in Gladwell's newest book, "Outliers: The Story of Success," that leaves me quizzical. The segment explores the January 1990 accident in which a Colombian jetliner crashed on Long Island, N.Y., after running out of fuel.

On the evening of Jan. 25, Avianca Flight 52 was on a scheduled run from Bogotá and Medellín to New York City's JFK airport. As the plane approached New York, heavy traffic and deteriorating weather resulted in a series of slowdowns and delays, including a holding pattern lasting more than an hour. During that time, the plane burned away most of its reserve fuel, which would have been used -- and probably should have been used -- for a diversion to its flight-planned alternate of Boston.

(For a review of the fuel carriage requirements for commercial airlines, see here.)

The flight was eventually cleared to JFK, but the situation became desperate after powerful crosswinds forced the Boeing 707 to abandon its initial landing attempt on Runway 22L. Controllers then rerouted the plane far to the north in preparation for a second attempt, at which point all remaining fuel was consumed. One at a time the jet's four engines stopped running, and it glided to a crash landing on a wooded hillside in the small enclave of Cove Neck, 15 miles from Kennedy, the shattered fuselage coming to rest in a residential backyard. Seventy-three of the plane's 158 occupants were killed, including the entire cockpit crew.

Despite being dangerously low on fuel, the pilots never informed air traffic control of the urgency of their situation. A simple declaration of an emergency would probably have saved them. Instead, they willingly, if nervously, accepted a deadly series of time-consuming holds and vectors from air traffic control.

As many others have done in the nearly 20 years since the accident, Malcolm Gladwell hypothesizes as to why it occurred. He ultimately puts the blame on what we'll call "cultural issues." He suggests that the Colombian pilots, due to a culturally imbued deference to authority, were disinclined to challenge the instructions of the air traffic controllers. It's a fascinating and provocative idea.

But I'm not sure that I agree with it. And even if I do, I do not believe, as Gladwell apparently does, that the cultural background of a cockpit crew has a serious bearing on air safety in 2008.

Reluctance to challenge authority has indeed been a factor in several past accidents. See Tenerife, 1977, for example, where it played a central role in the worst air crash of all time. Traditionally it has occurred within the cockpit -- manifested by, for instance, a young first officer's hesitancy to question the judgment of a more experienced, perhaps overbearing senior captain. There are examples from a wide swath of cultures -- from America, Europe, South America and Asia. In the case of Tenerife, the crew was Dutch.

As for Avianca 52, we are asked to accept that a professional aircrew was intimidated to the point of catastrophe by the authority of air traffic control. Gladwell focuses on the first officer (copilot), whose duties on the leg to JFK included communicating with ATC. At one point, according to investigators, the captain specifically requested that he use the word "emergency" over the radio. But, for reasons unknown, only the word "priority" was used -- a term that, in the pilot-controller lexicon, conveys far less urgency. Listening to voice recordings of the pilot talking with ATC, one is struck by the lack of distress in his voice. You can take this different ways. One impression is that of a pilot too macho to reveal any fear or urgency. A cultural thing, maybe -- not one of deference, but one of a macho Latin pilot who refuses to let his emotions show.

But there were three pilots in the cockpit that night, all of whom had a vested interest in staying alive. It is the captain, not the copilot or controllers, who has absolute authority over the safety of his aircraft, and the idea of ATC overriding this authority is unheard of in any aviation culture. Thus, if Gladwell is correct, it is only to a point. Cultural issues were possibly at hand, but so were language issues, technology issues, a failure to follow standard operating procedures -- and, perhaps most critical of all, a communications breakdown facilitated not by culture per se, but by the personality dynamic within that particular crew.

Aside from the obvious failure of the pilots to relay the criticality of their fuel status, the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) included the following:

  • inadequate management and monitoring of the plane's fuel load
  • a lack of en route communications between the pilots and their dispatchers, who would normally be on hand to assist with fuel and diversion planning
  • a failure of the dispatch team to provide the crew with adequate weather information
  • a flight plan that failed to adequately consider ATC or weather delays

In other words, sloppiness all around. This was a crash that was punctuated by, though not necessarily "caused" by, anything the copilot said, or didn't say, over the radio.

(I should mention, however, that Colombia's Avianca traces its lineage to 1919 and is one of the world's oldest airlines. On the whole, notwithstanding the foregoing, its safety record compares favorably with those of most other large carriers.)

Running out of fuel is unforgivable, but playing the culture card to explain it away is, on some level, too easy. The truth lay deeper and was in the end perhaps impossible to decipher. Consider for a moment the case of United Airlines Flight 173, a DC-8 that ran its tanks dry over Oregon in 1978. As with Avianca, the United crew was on the one hand acutely aware of its situation yet, on the other, inexplicably loath to deal with it.

Overall I have few quibbles with the main postulates in Gladwell's new book, but with this particular example, he's overreaching, oversimplifying, overemphasizing.

On the speaking circuit, meanwhile, he's been hitting and missing.

"Planes are flown safely when the pilot and copilot are in open and honest communication," said Gladwell during a CNN interview recently. "And in cultures where it is difficult for a junior person to speak openly to a superior, you have lots of plane crashes."

As I've already mentioned, in-cockpit friction between captain and first officer (or, to use the colloquial and rather misleading terms, "pilot and copilot") was a contributing factor in several past accidents. Consider South Korea, where this issue was well publicized after a string of pilot-error mishaps in the 1990s, culminating with the crash of Korean Air Flight 801 in Guam, in 1997. Gladwell notes similarities between this incident and that of Avianca 52.

"Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for a period at the end of the 1990s," notes Gladwell in an interview with Fortune magazine. "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."

Excellent point. But as Gladwell takes the time to point out, Korean aviation is very different today, following a systemic overhaul of the nation's civil aviation system. A 2008 assessment by ICAO ranked Korea's aviation safety standards, including its pilot training standards, as the highest in the world, beating out more than a hundred other countries.

And for the record, while I understand what Gladwell was trying to say, no culture or country anywhere has "lots of plane crashes." This sort of flip language reinforces the widespread idea that flying is less safe than it actually is, statistically. Globally, there are twice as many airliners carrying twice as many people as there were a quarter-century ago, with much of that growth taking place in developing nations. The raw number of accidents is up, but the rate of accidents, per miles flown, continues to drop.

And better crew training, ironically, is the No. 1 reason. Most of what Gladwell is talking about has been engineered out of the picture.

And lastly, we have this exchange:

CNN interviewer: Another fascinating finding is that you are more likely to be in a plane crash if the pilot comes from a particular country. What's that all about?

Gladwell: Yes. That's a fascinating thing. The single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes is not the plane, it's not the maintenance, it's not the weather, it's the culture the pilot comes from.

That is a reckless and untrue statement. There is nothing, statistically or empirically, to justify such a conclusion. Looking over the accidents from the past several years, I see crashes involving airplanes from Nigeria, Cyprus, Kenya, France, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand. Looking further into their various causes, I do see a pattern of pilot error, usually in response to technical failure or some other unusual situation, but the majority of fatal mistakes were strictly technical/operational.

A factor in a limited number of accidents? I can accept that. But "the single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes"? That is totally absurd, and I am extremely disappointed that somebody as influential as Malcolm Gladwell said it. In addition to being incorrect, it encourages the widely held notion that non-Western airlines are by their nature less safe than those of North America and Europe -- a mythology I've addressed many times in this column.

What all of this underscores is the difficulty of finding wholly reliable information when it comes to commercial air travel. Aviation is a strange and mysterious realm, steeped in secrecy and veiled by an almost impenetrable vernacular. It begs to be sensationalized. Any journalist who comes near it has a hard time coming away with information that is, for the lay reader, at once digestible, useful and accurate. Gladwell gets a lot of it right, but still I expect better from one of our most talented and meticulous reporters.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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