Sunday, 11 July 2010

Good, it’s the co-pilot flying the plane.

These days it’s the practice of most airline captains to come over the speakers at some time or other, during a flight and introduce himself, and the co-pilot. Sometimes the Captain will say if it’s him/her, or the co-pilot, who is handling the controls. For myself I’m happiest if the person handling the controls happens to be the co-pilot. Then I know conditions couldn’t get much better for avoiding stupid errors.

An authoritarian cockpit culture has been blamed for what was at one time the appalling safety record of Korean airlines. In a number of critical situations, when it was quite clear to the co-pilot that the Captain, who also happened to be handling the aircraft, was doing the wrong thing the junior pilot felt unable to intervene out of respect for the authoritarian figure in the left hand seat.

Cultural differences seem to be most significant when it comes to marking out the differences in human behaviour. The habit of being willing or unwilling to defer to authority is an interesting marker in identifying the differences in what might be termed national character. Geert Hofstede has done extensive work trying to quantify how certain measurable characteristics are found in different cultures.

Geert Hofstede

For South Korea we find that the Hofstede index shows a PDI of 60%.

PDI represents something called Power Distance Index and is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions are willing to accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. It suggests that a society's level of inequality is endorsed as much by the followers as much as by the leaders.

The higher the PDI the more likely a society is to accept, without question, authority.
World Average 55
South Korea 60
Spain 51
Italy 45
USA 40
Australia 36
British 30
Germany 30

South Korea has a PDI index of 60. 5% above the world average of 55. But it’s interesting to note that both Britain and Germany both have very low scores in PDI. Suggesting that nationally these two countries are much more likely to question authority than accept it. Which is very interesting. Britain, supposedly hidebound with it’s established class system, and Germany also playing against the national stereotype, are measurably less deferential even than the truculent Australians and a full 10% less so, than the denizens of the land of the free, the USA.

In matters of flight safety being able to question authority is crucial. If the pilot in command is about to do something bloody stupid it’s the job of the co-pilot to put him right. In the days before Korean airlines retrained there were an number of instances where the junior pilot kept quiet because he felt unable to challenge the authority of the captain although he was quite aware that the senior figure was going wrong.

The world PDI average is 55% which means that if you fly a lot you may still encounter a co-pilot who is a little inhibited when it comes to challenging the bad judgement of the captain. It makes sense then for conditions to be best if the co-pilot is handling the aircraft. It means that the experienced captain is free to observe how the co-pilot is doing. Moreover, if he does spot something going wrong he’s unlikely to feel inhibited about letting the pilot know about it.

Changing Cockpit Culture: Why We Fired Capt. Kirk


  1. What an interesting point! Put like this it makes far more sense for the co-pilot to do most of the work, with the captain being present as an experienced 'veto' to jump in when they're going 'off course'.

    I remember seeing a program about a crash caused by a flaw in the communications systems that planes used to use (don't know if they still do) in which the captain thought he had take-off clearance when he did not. The co-pilot tried to alert him to his error, but the captain was pretty much "I know what I'm doing." and put his foot down. I don't think anyone got out alive.

    Mind you, this too points towards, perhaps, something of a macho cockpit culture in which the pilots 'fly by the seat of their pants' and depend a lot on their own surety that they are right. This might be appropriate in a fighter pilot who has to make snap decisions (though there will be times even for them when it isn't) but how often is it appropriated for an airline pilot?

    On the other hand though, there is another psychological result that is relevant here. Experiments have shown that the more people there are in the decision process, the more likely it is that no-one will act, they'll just debate until the plane ploughs into the hillside, so I guess, like everything, it's a matter of getting the balance right.

  2. I'm frankly shocked that Oz scores higher than the UK on respect for authority, though I would have expected the UK to be low on the list. And yes, Germany is playing against type, or is it? Might it not be that, precisely because of not-too-distant history, Germans have become very down on authority?

    I think the UK, with it's long history of eccentricity and rebellion, has always chafed under authority. I wonder how much we are like this *precisely because* of the class system. Americans, it strikes me, have always been more respectful of authority, and if you think about it, that makes sense. If you believe your country is a meritocracy (let's not get into whether that's true or not, and whether it's ever true anywhere, or not) then you have good reason to believe that the people above you have earned their position, know what they are doing, and are worthy of your respect. If you live under a class system, then you have good reason to believe that the people above you got there by nepotism and are chinless wonders with no idea what they are doing.
    On this basis, the more oppressive and corrupt a regime is, the less respect the people will have for authority. And when you put it like that, it's kinda obvious, and it fits very well to the results we have.
    The only outlier is to ask why, in the 1930s/40s the German people became strangely obedient to authority? What caused that?

  3. >The only outlier is to ask why, in the 1930s/40s the German people became strangely obedient to authority? What caused that?

    I agree. The longer a live in Germany, the harder I find that to understand.