Why Flight Safety in South Korea Lagged Behind Its Economic Boom

By 1999, South Korea was already well on its way to joining the world's most advanced economies. Companies like Samsung and Hyundai were fast becoming household names and, at a little less than $10,000, the country's GDP per capita -- having taken a hit during the Asian financial crisis in 1997 -- was not far off from those of poorer Western European countries such as Malta and Greece. Overall life expectancy in South Korea was soaring.

But the country's aviation safety record was abysmal. Its national carrier, Korean Air, had a reputation as one of the worst in the business -- so bad that U.S. Department of Defense personnel were banned from taking its flights. The airline ranked among the worst in fatalities in the 1990s, with 311 over the course of the decade compared to American's 171 and United's 147. Three of Korean Air's partner airlines -- Delta, Air France, and Air Canada - refused to continue booking their passengers on its flights.

One would expect a country's aviation safety record to improve as it develops economically, since richer countries should be more committed to and capable of enforcing health and safety regulations. But according to a 2010 study, in newly rich countries like South Korea, safety in the skies does not always improve in step with GDP. (It's worth noting that Korean aviation safety has improved significantly from the bad old days; until this weekend's crash in San Francisco, South Korea's Asiana Airlines had a top-ranked, seven-star rating for safety on the website, according to the Wall Street Journal).

The study, "Cross-National Differences in Aviation Safety Records," conducted by MIT professor Arnold Barnett, looked at air travel from 2000 to 2007, and found that the safest countries to fly in were what he called "traditional first-world countries" -- the United States and Western Europe, for example -- where the risk of death from flying was just 1 in 14 million. Least safe were the least-developed countries -- Nigeria and Pakistan, for example. There, the risk of dying, while still low, was a significantly higher 1 in 800,000.

So far, pretty predictable.

Where the study gets interesting is in its findings about the risk of taking to the skies in newly rich countries -- including nations such as South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, which today have comparable life expectancies and GDP-per-capita levels to "first-word" nations. While lower than in the developing world, the risk of flying in countries like Hong Kong and Bahrain was 1 death in 2 million flights -- much closer to developing-world risk levels than first-world risk levels (the results are similar regardless of whether accidents are classified by the home country of the airline or the country where the accident took place). The study found similar results for countries Barnett classified as "newly-industralizing," which included Malaysia, South Africa, and Turkey.

It's not entirely clear why countries with similar levels of economic achievement to first-world countries (Singapore, for example, has a much higher GDP per capita today than many Western European countries) have advanced so much less in aviation safety. One popular theory (endorsed by Malcom Gladwell, no less) holds that there's a cultural factor at play -- that certain cultures emphasizing hierarchy are more prone to dangerous flights because when something goes wrong, lower-ranking members of the  crew are reluctant to challenge the pilot's decisions or demand assistance.

One oft-cited example of this dynamic at work is the crash of Avianca Flight 52, which crashed in 1990 because it ran out of fuel while circling above John F. Kennedy Airport in New York; Gladwell, and others, maintain that because of cultural differences, the Colombian crew was not assertive enough with air traffic controllers about the need to prioritize their flight for landing. Korean Air took the problem seriously enough to tackle it head on in trying to resolve its safety issues in the 1990s: a new head of operations, brought on in 2000, specifically sought to tackle "cockpit culture." (For more on the old cockpit culture at Korean Air, see this Wall Street Journal investigation from 1999, that describes pilots slapping or hitting their co-pilots for making mistakes.)

Like all cultural explanations, this can be something of a minefield -- are the cultures of Colombia and South Korea really similar enough with regards to hierarchy and attitudes toward authority that this makes sense as an explanation for both countries' aviation safety issues? Interestingly, one thing we do know about the events on Asiana Airlines Flight 214 is that the pilot was challenged by the crew; or at least, a crew member requested that the landing be aborted. But the request came just 1.5 seconds before impact.

As Barnett points out, the difference in flying risk across countries is not between "safe" and "dangerous," but rather between "very safe" and "safe." A fatal plane crash remains a rare thing -- wherever you're traveling.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


Education or Exploitation? Channel 4's Ramadan Broadcast Stirs Up Debate in U.K.

Ramadan, the Islamic holy month marked by fasting from sunrise to sunset, begins Monday evening in many parts of the world (just when continues to be the subject of debate). And in a intentionally provocative move, the British broadcaster Channel 4 has announced that it will be airing the call to prayer, or adhan, live every morning throughout Ramadan (an autoplay version will also be available on its website five times daily). The first call to prayer will air at 3:00 a.m. on Tuesday and "[p]rogrammes in the schedule will be cut to accommodate the adhan."

Writing for Britain's Radio Times magazine, Channel 4's head of factual programming, Ralph Lee, called the decision "a deliberate 'provocation' to all our viewers in the very real sense of the word," noting that the broadcaster expected to be "criticized for focusing attention on a 'minority' religion." Lee went on to point out that nearly five percent of the country will be participating in Ramadan. "[C]an we say the same of other national events that have received blanket coverage on television such as the Queen's coronation anniversary?" he asked.


The channel's month-long coverage will be paired with other programs that document what daily life is like for practicing British Muslims during Ramadan. And, just as Lee and his colleagues intended, its decision to become "the first mainstream British TV channel to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer live each morning" has sparked a debate in the country over the past week. Critics are dismissing the move as a gimmick, while supporters are welcoming the coverage -- especially in the aftermath of the gruesome murder of a British soldier in Woolwich, London in May, which raised concerns about a backlash against Muslims.

One columnist for the Daily Mail, for instance, labeled Channel 4's decision "pure tokenism" adding, "If it were being serious, it would broadcast all five calls to prayer, interrupting daytime transmissions of soap operas, cricket matches and news bulletins where necessary. Also, as a gesture to Islam, it would refuse to carry advertisements for alcohol during the holy season."

The Guardian, for its part, has run pro and con columns on the issue, with Nabil Ahmed calling Channel 4's decision "an opportunity for all of us to learn - and to put aside preconceived ideas" and Nesrine Malik describing the move as "irresponsible and patronizing."

Terry Sanderson, president of Britain's National Secular Society, expressed concern about Channel 4 engaging in a "publicity-seeking stunt" but also conceded, "Given that the BBC devotes hundreds of hours a year to Christianity, with two or three church services every day on its radio stations, and hardly any mention of minority religions, a few minutes devoted to Islam doesn't seem unreasonable."

Twitter users have greeted the news with trademark sarcasm:




This isn't the first time Channel 4 has drummed up controversy. In 2008, the broadcaster had outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad give an alternative to the Queen Elizabeth's Christmas Day address. There's no such thing as bad publicity, right?