When he swung his Airbus 310-200 around for a third attempt to land in southern Thailand, the pilot must have known he was taking a risk. A night landing in rainy weather is hard enough. But with a key navigation device missing because of airport construction, Thai Airways Flight 261 faced a difficult approach.
But Capt. Pinit Wetchasil proceeded - disregarding his own airline's rules - and plowed the aircraft into a rubber plantation. The crash killed 101 passengers and crew, including Captain Wetchasil.
This incident last December capped a disastrous period in Asian aviation: six major accidents over a year and a half that killed nearly 1,000 people. The results of investigations into the Thai Airways crash and other incidents have yet to be made public, but aviation analysts say that human error was probably responsible. One possible source of mistakes now being examined: a cultural aversion to challenging superiors in the cockpit.
The good news is that airline officials are sharpening their focus on safety because of the disasters. In China, South Korea, and Taiwan - some of Asia's most notorious aviation danger zones - airline executives, pilots, and regulators are making tangible efforts to enhance the safety of commercial air travel. A top priority is to improve pilot skills and their interactions with other crew members.
China's newfound dedication to safer skies came in the mid-1990s and is already showing results. From 1989 to 1994, at least 642 people died in mishaps on Chinese airlines. From 1995 through 1998, the death toll was just 37, according to a database maintained by Airclaims Ltd., a London-based company.
Despite progress in China, it seems too soon to say that most airlines in the region have their safety problems under control. But "it's not too soon to say that they're trying to get their act together," says Stuart Matthews, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, a non-profit organization located near Washington. The airlines "have always paid lip service to what should be done, but it's only recently that they started pulling their socks up."
Seen in global perspective, Asian airline safety ranks just where one would expect given the region's level of economic development: behind North America and Europe, but ahead of Latin America and Africa. The region known as Oceania - principally Australia and New Zealand - also ranks higher.
Airline safety within the region also reflects economic diversity. Airlines based in economically advanced areas such as Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore have good safety records, whereas Ariana Afghan Airlines and Burma's Myanma Airlines - two carriers from poorer countries - do not.
Notwithstanding the December 1998 crash, Thai Airways is considered to generally have a good safety record. "Thai International has certainly not compromised its standards as a result of the [economic] crisis," says Guy Maillet, a Bangkok-based official of France's Aerospatiale.
But there is one thing that Asian airlines are supposed to share: "cultural" problems in the cockpit. Some experts assert that safety is jeopardized by captains who are too hierarchically minded, co-pilots who are unwilling to challenge their superiors, and a tendency to avoid conflict.
Western airlines aren't free of authoritarian captains who accept no second-guessing, but the companies have been working longer at creating a sense of cockpit cooperation and teamwork.
"I don't think in Asia you are going to get a co-pilot to take a plane away from the captain when you've got a problem looming - when it's a matter of seconds," says Jim Eckes, an aviation consultant based in Hong Kong. "The hierarchy culture is still very pervasive ... in Asia, and it hasn't been corrected yet."
Mr. Eckes says airlines must employ more foreign pilots, dismiss unsafe fliers, and set up training by independent organizations. Indeed, some of the safest airlines in the area, such as Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific, use large numbers of Western pilots. And reforming cockpit culture is a big part of Korean Air's focus on safety.
But some Asian pilots and Western experts say Asian values aren't the problem. "There's no such seniority culture," says an official at one Asian airline who spoke on condition neither he nor his company be named.
His airline employs some foreign pilots, but mainly relies on a high-tech and costly monitoring program that routinely checks pilot performance. As the executive puts it, "this silent friend in the cockpit" - the flight data recorder and other devices that chronicle how the captain and crew fly the aircraft - is part of a corporate culture that ensures safety.
China's leaders seem determined to show that their airlines are becoming safer, and they are taking advantage of the country's authoritarian political system to make it happen.
Just after the first sunrise of the new year, jetliners will begin taking off from airfields across China - carrying the heads of China's central, regional, and provincial airlines.
"The government has ordered top executives of all Chinese airlines to board their carriers' flights on Jan. 1, 2000, to demonstrate that the flights are Y2K-proof," explains Zheng Jianling, a computer expert at the China Software Testing Center in Beijing.
"The measure is aimed at building confidence in the safety of flying within and beyond the country on Chinese airlines into the next century," adds Mr. Zheng, who runs Y2K training courses for top officials.
That goal might have seemed unreachable in the first half of the decade, when China was one of the most dangerous places to fly. But since then airline executives, pilots, and plane maintenance crews have struggled to improve safety. Accident rates have plummeted.
"Other countries may have more advanced aviation technology," says Wen Tingsheng, who heads the air safety department of the country's flagship carrier, Air China. "Yet we are concentrating on upgrading pilot training while importing instruction and air-traffic-control equipment from Australia and the US," he adds.
Today China seems to be engaging in a massive joint venture with the West, primarily the US, to improve flying standards. United Airlines, for example, sponsors flight sessions for Chinese pilots, and since 1993 has operated advanced training classes in Denver, Col., says David Xu of UA's Beijing office.
Boeing "has invested several hundred million dollars in developing China's aviation infrastructure since 1993, with an emphasis on improving safety ... and management skills training," says Jessie Li, a spokeswoman at Boeing China Inc.
The US aviation titan, which now holds more than half of the Chinese aircraft market, has launched a spectrum of programs aimed at improving air safety. The company has trained more than 4,000 pilots, maintenance personnel, and flight operations officers in the past six years at centers in China, Washington, and California.
Boeing also helped Chinese authorities set up the Civil Aviation Flying College in southwestern Sichuan province, gave the school two flight simulators, and provided advanced training at the Florida Institute of Technology.
Well before a Korean Air cargo jet crashed in Shanghai last April, ex-customers were calling it "Killer Air." Five crashes in five years and a spate of safety lapses earned it one of the most parlous records among Asian airlines. Even President Kim Dae Jung criticized the private company - South Korea's flag carrier - for damaging the country's reputation.
Its problems appear to be partly due to Korean Airline's (KAL) rapid expansion. But the airline also serves as the most convincing example that culture matters in a cockpit.
In highly publicized accounts, Delta Air Lines pilots hired to advise KAL in 1997 described its shortcomings: The airline relied heavily on former military pilots who sometimes flouted procedures and did not meet civilian aviation training standards. Few pilots were proficient in English, the language of air traffic controllers around the world.
Fearing an erosion of public trust, KAL's chairman and 29 top executives resigned following the Shanghai crash. New managers announced a safety overhaul on July 15. "Failure is not an option. We will prove that Korean Air is a better, safer, and stronger airline," said chairman Shim Yi Taek.
Measures include a $30 million, five-year contract with FlightSafetyBoeing - a joint venture between the airplane manufacturer and the training firm FlightSafety International Inc. - to train and evaluate KAL pilots starting this month.
New training standards require more hours in cockpit simulators emphasizing decisionmaking skills and teamwork. KAL also plans to triple the number of non-Korean pilots by year end, increase English training for its pilots, and create a bonus pay system encouraging safety.
The airline is installing "Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning Systems" in all its planes by 2000. Also, a new ground-based digital flight operations system will monitor conditions and broadcast information to pilots.
But changing cockpit culture could take time. Koreans live in a rigid social hierarchy, and it is considered rude to point out someone's mistake, particularly if made by a superior
When a Korean Air 747 crashed on Guam in August 1997, killing 228, the cockpit voice recorder revealed that co-pilots didn't assert themselves and warn the captain that the plane was descending too rapidly. The jet hit a hilltop just as it began pulling up for a second approach.
After the Shanghai crash this April, Delta, Air Canada, and Air France canceled code-sharing agreements that put their passengers on KAL planes. But officials at KAL say they hope the new safety measures bring back customers.
Although international flights have seen only a minor drop in passengers, domestic routes have been harder hit. Rival Asiana Airlines, once trailing KAL with 12 to 17 percent fewer customers, now carries 10 percent more passengers domestically.
For its part, Asiana says it hasn't had culture problems. When Asiana was founded in 1998, its pilots were trained by Boeing, says a spokesman who asked not to be named. In 1995 the company instituted a training regimen developed in the US called "crew resource management," designed to help crew members cooperate and communicate.
"The cultural impact certainly has something to do with [safety]," says Bill Harty, an American who has been a Korean Air captain since early 1997 and is now vice president for special projects. "But the problem that any airline goes through in its evolution tends to be wanting to hold on to the way it did things in the past. I really don't think that's exclusively Korean."
Nowadays, in Korean Air simulators, co-pilots are told they must call out instructions, which the captain must then confirm. "This does away with the macho-type concepts that were in airlines maybe 30 years ago," Captain Harty says.
Taiwan's China Airlines has one of the worst safety records: 519 deaths over the past decade. But spokesman Charles Hsu says the airline "has taken every kind of measure to ensure flight safety, including setting up crew resource management courses, instructor improvement classes, and independent review boards."
Although these efforts do not seem to match the intensity of those in China and South Korea, China Airlines executives "have been making big efforts and paying lots of money to improve flight safety," adds Yuan Hsing-Yuan, a retired Air Force officer and former director of the airline.
He says the reasons behind the record include rapid growth, the lack of an aviation college in Taiwan, pilots who have not kept up with aircraft technology, and a tendency not to scrutinize past mistakes and adopt standard procedures. Another China Airlines official, speaking on condition of anonymity, adds that "in Asian culture, there is a tradition to respect your superiors and elders. But sometimes even the captain can make a mistake - if everyone obeys him totally, they can overlook mistakes."
Y. L. Lee, a longtime pilot who runs the island's biggest domestic carrier, Far Eastern Air Transport, says Taiwan "has a long way to go." But he says the government's decision to create a Taiwanese version of the US National Transportation Safety Board - a watchdog agency that investigates all US accidents and recommends fixes - will help.
He is skeptical of the claim that culture impedes safety, but says change must come in the form of a better corporate culture - fostering teamwork and an environment where colleagues can both criticize and help each other. "In a cockpit you have to share information, to share the wisdom. You need to build the crew as a team, not just a group."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society