Crew Communication Failure During Korean Air’s Accident


In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell claimed that ethnic differences could dramatically influence a working performance. To illustrate the point, he provided an example of Korea Air’s crash in 1997. While attempting to land at the Guam airport, the plane hit a mountain. According to Gladwell, the tragedy occurred due to human error: the pilot operated the aircraft while tired, and there was a lack of communication among the crew. Even though some minor technical issues were involved in the crash, I agree with Gladwell’s statement that failure of teamwork and communication seems to play a significant role in such disasters.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

In his work, Gladwell shows that common preconceptions about plane crashes, derived mostly from movies, are false. The dramatic incidents usually occur not because of technical malfunctions or extreme weather conditions but as a result of accumulated human mistakes (Gladwell, 2008). For instance, in an ordinary crash, the weather is not severe but poor enough for the pilot to be more stressed than usual, which leads to an increased chance of a mistake (Gladwell, 2008). Additionally, Gladwell states that in about 50% of airplane accidents, the pilots have been awake for twelve hours or more, resulting in impaired thinking and decision-making (Gladwell, 2008). Consequently, additional stress and exhaustion can easily lead to the accumulation of mistakes and, eventually, dramatic incidents. In support of this claim, veteran pilot Suren Ratwatte confirms that usually, airplane crashes happen because they become unable to communicate, improvise, and multitask properly (Gladwell, 2008). Therefore, the human factor seems to be the main reason for such accidents.

The core of Gladwell’s theory of plane crashes lies in cultural differences that affect the communication and teamwork of the crew members. Cross-cultural psychologists have noticed that, depending on the culture, people tend to behave and interact with each other differently (Gladwell, 2008). Also, power distance is one of the most important dimensions of cultural differences that affect human interaction (Gladwell, 2008). Specifically, individualistic “low-power distance” cultures have an insignificant effect on people’s communication (Gladwell, 2008). In contrast, collectivistic “high-power distance” countries have strict cultural rules for appropriate ways to interact with superiors and authoritative figures (Gladwell, 2008). This notion indicates that collectivistic cultures have the ability to influence communication and, therefore, affect the quality of working performance.

In the case of Korea Air’s crush, Gladwell stated that the high power distance between the crew members drastically impaired the clarity of their verbal interaction, which led to the tragedy. As Gladwell noted, Korean culture implies quite subtle communication, potentially leading to confusion during stressful situations (Gladwell, 2008). To illustrate the point, the “black box” recovered after the accident showed how the first officer tried to hint at dangerous weather conditions to the exhausted pilot, but the latter failed to understand the message’s true meaning (Gladwell, 2008). The example shows how cultural features can lead to misunderstandings during the crisis and eventual tragedy.


In conclusion, I strongly agree that the failure of communication and teamwork is the primary concern in terms of preventing such tragedies as airplane crashes. In addition, the case of Korea Air’s crash illustrates that crucial human interaction during emergencies may be impeded by cultural issues, like high power distance. Therefore, it is necessary to acknowledge the danger and create a proper environment for interpersonal contact.


Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. Hachette UK.