Korea Proposes Dumb Solution To Improve Aircraft Safety

Filed Under: Asiana, Korean Air

Historically Korean airlines have abysmal safety records. They’ve gotten better over recent years, but going back a couple of decades, Korean Air had a pathetic safety record.

Korean cockpit culture was almost unarguably the primary cause of this. Korean society is very hierarchical and respectful, and a lot of the accidents have simply come down to first officers not wanting to question the decisions of captains, given that they’d basically be “insulting” them.


There’s perhaps no accident where that’s more transparent than Korean Air 8509, whereby the first officer saw exactly what was causing the accident, but didn’t say anything:

It’s summed up pretty well by Malcolm Gladwell, who describes the issue as follows:

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 (BA, Fortune 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.

Asiana has had two “runway diversions” in recent years (the most recent one was kept reasonably quiet).

It’s clear that South Korea is concerned about their airlines’ safety records, and is doing what they can to turn this around. One way they’ve tried to deal with the situation is by denying airlines the right to fly routes after they have accidents, as was supposed to happen to Asiana at San Francisco. That seems like a pretty dumb “solution” to me.


But it seems they’ve found an even dumber one. Per The Korea Observer (bolding mine):

South Korean airlines have voluntarily pledged to replace their old aircraft as part of efforts to boost passenger safety, the transportation ministry said Monday.

According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, the country’s eight air carriers signed an agreement on Friday, in which they have voluntarily agreed to replace all their aircraft that are 20 years old or older.

The move comes despite the fact that there currently is no limit on the age of an aircraft, the ministry noted.

Currently, only 14 out of 264 aircraft owned and operated by the country’s seven passenger airlines are 20 years old or older while both of the two cargo planes operated by airfreight carrier Air Incheon are 20 years old or older.

It’s worth noting that this is a voluntary pledge on the part of Korean airlines, so the government isn’t forcing airlines to do this. That being said, are they really suggesting that adding a retirement age to planes will boost passenger safety? Seriously?!

All of the biggest crashes by Korean airlines have been with planes that are less than 20 years old, so to even remotely suggest that’s there’s a correlation between passenger safety and aircraft age is preposterous. Aircraft undergo heavy maintenance periodically, so you should feel just as safe flying a 30+ year old plane as you should flying a brand new one.

Bottom line

I have no issue with airlines creating a voluntary agreement whereby they’ll retire planes after a certain amount of time. That being said, to suggest that this will in any way improve the safety of the airlines is sort of insulting.

  1. “so to even remotely suggest that’s there’s a correlation between passenger safety and aircraft age is preposterous”

    This is demonstrably wrong. Not only do newer aircraft incorporate more/better safety data into their design, but older aircraft present unique challenges that don’t plague newer aircraft like metal fatigue. The fact is that there was a *bigger* problem than this in Korea is true–as demonstrated by the many incidents you referenced–but anything that affects passenger safety in a positive way should be applauded.

  2. Lucky cutting on other cultures in his backhanded way. Nothing new here, move along. Sure hope your points and superiority don’t give out.

  3. It’s yet another diversion from the real problem. Stuff like this happens every week in Korea, and always after some major accident.

    Remember hearing about the Sewol – the big ferry that sunk off the coast of Korea with 300+ HS kids drowning? Most drowned because the captain told them to stay put and the kids listened as he was older and in charge. Another example of Korean culture at fault for the deaths of many.

    To top it all off, government officials signed all these safety laws into place which were meant to brush aside the bigger problem of corruption and business’s negliegence. This is similar to the airlines agreeing to do something completely unrelated in order to brush aside a bigger problem. Those safety laws were followed for a month and then everything reverted back to the way it was – the Korean way of doing things. Safery is NOT a priority in this country when it comes to anything.

    I am a foreigner in Korea and have been here and east Asia for half a decade now. Everything about Korean culture is just wrong – Malcolm Gladwell barely scratched the surface. Most young Koreans I’ve met are trying to emigrate west – the younger generations get it, but can’t do much with the old guard in power. I hate to knock down Korea but it isn’t so much Korea as it is the culture and the nonesense that gets by that would never fly in the west.

    What Korean airlines need to do is hire westerners to fly their planes and not the local guys they pulled from the air force, and trained them to obey the older captain. Although, I do know for a fact that they ARE hiring foreigners to fly their planes as they are realizing the faults of their culture and its effects in the cockpit.

    Cheers from Seoul.

  4. Re Justin: we appreciate the Korean to renew their plane, but obviously that’s not the problem, they are just trying to find a scapegoat to avoid changing their mind, I will continue to avoid Korean Air, unless they are changing their policy, their boss (including his lovely daughter) and their scandal prone

  5. I don’t think there is anything wrong about that. The reason I tried to stay away from Delta is their aircrafts are so freaking old…

  6. @Matias
    Not really, you are more likely to see air accident if you fly lots of old MD and 747 aircrafts. These old planes are not smart enough and heavily relied on pilot’s experience. ( just imagine you are flying an aircraft controlled by MSDOS or Windows 95)New aircrafts however are more intellectual and provide more accurate advices..

  7. My take is this was agreed to by the current airlines in an effort to cut down on low cost carriers coming in with older planes to compete in the market.

  8. @Ron Mexico – just give our little Lucky a break. We Germans like to feel we know better / are better than others. It’s a cultural thing.

  9. I agree with AdamH, this is partly public relations, partly ‘signaling behavior’ and partly a competitive measure. Also, keep in mind that the MV Sewol ferry disaster last year literally traumatized the nation of South Korea. Transport safety is clearly on the forefront similar to how security was in the United States after 9/11. After 9/11, US corporations and government agencies put in place many security measures that might seem ridiculous from the outside, but were understandable in the context of a response to a national trauma.

  10. Would be nice if you credited this along with your many other recent posts to threads you read on airliners.net
    The facts and data, too, are siphoned off from the posters on that website.
    Nothing against reposting this here but the way you do it is just pure leeching!

  11. What I find more than “sort of insulting” is your static view of Korean culture as ‘hierarchical’.
    Sure, all cultures are hierarchical in some way or another, but to imply that this is fixed in time smacks of ignorance, bordering on racism.
    I have been in Korea several times in the past 13 years, and there has been an immense shift in attitudes. Wouldn’t this be obvious with such a broad exposure to western ‘culture’?
    Talk with a few Korean pilots — I’ve spoken with friends and acquaintances from both Asiana and KAL, and you’ll have a better idea of cockpit relationships.
    With respect, get with the times, Ben!
    (Would you like to believe that American police culture is going to remain static? I would certainly hope not….)

  12. Not sure I would call the 2013 Asiana 214 accident a mere “runway diversion.” Crash is more appropriate.

  13. @ Justin – spot on.
    @ Lucky – way off.

    The incessant brain washing from airlines that their old planes are just as good as newer ones is nothing but lies. A 737 is less accident prone than the 727 or M80, and so on. Having newer planes also means a different mix or aircraft types (a newer one) with associated increase in safety.

  14. The best and lasting way to change the culture of a society is through a modification of its education system.

  15. @ Rog — Totally agree, though that’s what they called the most recent one, hence the quotation marks.

  16. @ Justin – agree with you 100%. My sentiment exactly. But as a local Korean I stay here by my own will to stay close to my family – Its not where you are but who you are with that matters to me I guess – instead of packing up and barging into other “civilized” nations like some unwanted cockroaches.

  17. You are spot on with your article on the Korean airlines. As a wide body international captain for KAL for several years your article touches the “tip of the iceberg”. I found it amusing when one of your responders called your article “racist”. Western cultures have no idea about racism. If you want to see racism as an art form, go to Korea. KAL has excellent maintainence. Good cabin crew and ground staff. However, the Korean pilots are another story. We had a saying there; “Better to lose your life than lose face”. After forty years of military and commercial aviation, I still shake my head at some of the things I saw there. You can fly on the Korean airlines, not me. By the way, they aren’t the only airlines that I won’t fly.

  18. @ Lee Patrick… “…If you want to see racism as an art form, go to Korea….”
    Well, I’ve been there several times, and have only once observed anything that could remotely be called ‘racist’.
    As for my nation — Canada — and an unnamed neighbour — I think that’s where you’re most likely to see it as an ‘art’ form — nothing artistic about it, though. Just overt, hard-core. The treatment of people of colour, of non-white immigrants, and of First Nations people is little short of abhorrent.

  19. Dude, go back to write about what you know best, points and miles. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are an expert of aviation just because you’ve flown around the world a few times by leeching on the loyalty systems.

  20. I think there is validity in the argument to retire old planes because older planes are more likely to have metal fatigue and potential stress fractures on the fuselage and metal bulkhead that is generally due to wear and tear between hundreds of thousands of flight cycles.

    But the real problems are human related, if you take a closer look at the past 2 nearly fatal crashes from Asiana Airlines (Hiroshima airport in April 2015 and SFO in 2013), they are due to pilot error. Retiring old planes will only help prevent accidents due to metal fatigue and normal wear and tear.

    The primary focus should be a change in the industry standard in Korea regarding pilot training, pilot certification, and re-certification for airline safety, landing safety, stall recovery, etc. These newer planes are not the answer. The problem is masked because pilots are taught to fly newer planes which carry with it automation, but pilots need to first learn how to fly a plane, then manage the automation. The South Korean Government needs to mandate that pilots go through periodic certification to ensure safety (U.S. and U.K. are already doing this). Retiring old planes does not solve the human error factor that will always be there with newer planes.

  21. Ben,

    I’m in the process of booking a trip in F on Korean Air to BKK via ICN for a family of 4. Award availability is great from the US to ICN if First for most days. But all I see is max 2 seats in F from ICN —> BKK for months at a time. Same is true from ICN –> HKG, HKT & DPS. Any idea whats going on or suggestions???


  22. @ Adam — Those are largely operated by planes with smaller first class cabins, which is probably why. Maybe book two people in business class on the connecting flight for now?

  23. I did fly with my wife to Phillippines 2 years ago, we booked Korean airlines. I am Swiss, have a neutral attitude towards other races or cultures.
    But even me and my wife(Phillippina) felt weird on these flights. I have to say, the Korean staff there was ‘mildly racistic’. Why? Well, they pampered the korean passengers with no end, while we just felt ‘tolerated’.
    The sister of my wife and her husband and their child had booked seats next to eachother…BOOKED. The Korean staff insisted to apart them coz some Koreans also wanted to sit next to eachother. Doesnt seem right to me.
    That are all only small issues, of course, and I just mention it coz some yell here…noooooo no racism at all with Koreans.

  24. This chap Ben ( Lucky ) knows sweet
    Bugger all about aviation safety and Korean culture. So he should just keep quiet. The Arabs have a far more hierarchial and despotic culture. Same with the Chinese and the Japanese. Their planes dont crash as often. The Koreans and Taiwanese have more aviation accidents because their pilots are often overworked as most Koreans and Taiwanese. Very unlike these LAZY CONCIETED AMERICANS

  25. More racist rubbish from BEN. He knows nothing about Korea. Keep these whites out of Korean air. As if these westerners dont get it wrong
    Stop mouthing Garbage Ben. Boeing will go belly up if the Koreans dont buy truckloads of 777s and 787s. Most Americans are lazy and STUPID.

  26. Then do not purchase that airline, you first booked for your flight like dumb and post online saying they provided dumb solution? Please think first and process, don’t be like a fool“

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *