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Asiana Airlines crash possibly linked to culture of deference

The cause of a commercial airline crash landing in San Francisco is investigated for communication errors rooted in Korean culture of subservience and respect.

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An Asiana Airlines flight enroute to Korea, a Boeing 777, taxis by the wreckage of Asiana Airlines flight 214 as it sits on runway 28L at San Francisco International Airport on July 8, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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 303 passengers, 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.

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.

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