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Cultural Issues Can Play A Big Role In Plane Crashes

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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.)

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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.

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