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 airlineratings.com, 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.