Malcolm Gladwell on Aviation Safety and Security

Travel Blog  •  Rob Verger  •  01.30.09 | 2:00 PM ET

Photo by Brooke Williams, via gladwell.com

Perhaps the most fascinating section of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers: The Story of Success, is the chapter called “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes.” Gladwell explores two plane crashes—one Colombian (Avianca Flight 52) and another, South Korean (Korean Air Flight 801)—and how the culture of the pilots perhaps contributed to each disaster. He focuses on how well the pilots communicated with each other and with air traffic control. Poor communication in these examples, he argues, has to do with something called a culture’s Power Distance Index (P.D.I.)—the term and concept come from psychologist Geert Hofstede—which is a measurement of “how much a particular culture values and respects authority,” as Gladwell defines it. Countries with a high P.D.I. generally value being more deferential towards authority, and thus not contradicting a superior (the U.S. and New Zealand both have a low P.D.I.). Gladwell argues that since both Colombia and South Korea rank towards the top of the P.D.I. list, the subordinate members of their cockpit crews were unable or unwilling to speak up as assertively as they should have about safety concerns.

I interviewed Gladwell in early November for an article for The Boston Globe and asked him if he would suggest changing anything in general regarding airline security. “Not really,” he answered, but added that he was more concerned “about the mistakes that pilots make and air traffic controllers make in the course of doing their jobs than I am about the threat posed by terrorists. It’s the classic thing where we demonize and terrify ourselves about the threat from outside and forget about the threat that we pose to ourselves.”

But it’s the connections that Gladwell draws in “Outliers” between culture and plane crashes that have become, not surprisingly, controversial.

In a December Boston Globe piece called “A tipping point for Gladwell?” Globe staff writer Alex Beam points out some of the criticism this section of the book (and some of Gladwell’s other work) has received. Beam writes that Ask the Pilot columnist Patrick Smith “teed off on Gladwell’s contention that ‘the single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes is not the plane, it’s not the maintenance, it’s not the weather, it’s the culture the pilot comes from.’ ‘That is a reckless and untrue statement,’ Smith wrote. ‘That is totally absurd, and I am extremely disappointed that someone as influential as Malcolm Gladwell said it.’”

I understand why Smith would have trouble with Gladwell’s contention that cultural factors can trump other factors. I can’t believe that the pilot’s culture is “the single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes,” as Gladwell said—although I believe it is a factor worth discussing. (That quote, by the way, is from an interview on CNN, not from “Outliers.”) Gladwell’s points about air safety are worth listening to. Both of the crashes he examines in depth seem like they could have been avoided had the pilots communicated better. Gladwell gives an American example, too: an Air Florida crash in 1982, when the first officer was too subtle in his suggestions to the captain about ice build-up on the wings. Some of Gladwell’s points can apply to all cultures.

Smith does acknowledge that cultural factors can play a part in plane crashes. “A factor in a limited number of accidents? I can accept that,” he wrote. In other words, Gladwell’s theories on plane crashes are interesting, but not the last word. I have a feeling that Gladwell doesn’t mind the debate. “Why is the fact that each of us comes from a culture with its own distinctive mix of strengths and weaknesses, tendencies and predispositions, so difficult to acknowledge?” he asks in “Outliers.” I agree, and I think it is better to talk about cultural differences openly and frankly than to pretend they do not exist.

However you feel about Gladwell’s arguments about the plane crashes, a happy note to end on here is that flying today is, simply put, amazingly safe.

In fact, I found the most compelling part of the chapter in question to be Gladwell’s look at the extraordinary circumstances needed for planes to crash in the first place. “Plane crashes are much more likely to be the result of an accumulation of minor difficulties and seemingly trivial malfunctions,” Gladwell writes. He lists a litany of factors, such as bad weather, the plane running late, pilot fatigue, and pilots who “have never flown together, so they’re not comfortable with each other.” On top of that, he adds, “The typical accident involves seven consecutive human errors.”

So next time I fly, I’ll perhaps be hoping that the pilot had a good night’s sleep and a morning cup of coffee.

Anyone who has read “Outliers” or listened to Gladwell speak about it have a strong opinion about the subject?


Rob Verger

Rob Verger is a frequent contributor to World Hum and the site's former air travel blogger. His articles and photographs have appeared in the Boston Globe and other publications, and he's a former undergraduate writing instructor at Columbia University. If you like, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or follow him on Twitter.


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