Do cultural and regional differences play a role in world aviation safety?
The Boeing Commercial Airplane Group, with some trepidation, has raised that question in an update of its authoritative 10-year survey of aviation safety. While offering no final answer, the world's largest airplane manufacturer says initial data suggest the possibility and demand deeper study.
"We're not saying there's anything there, but we think there's something there," said Paul D. Russell, chief engineer for airplane safety engineering. "We ought to study it. We think culture may be a player."
The question is sensitive because it inevitably raises the issue of race and because Boeing runs the risk of inadvertently insulting some of its customers. But the initial survey of cultural differences and accident rates offers some surprises.
Boeing relied on a "cultural index" produced by Geert H. Hofstede, an anthropologist at the Institute of International Culture in the Netherlands. Hofstede has rated most countries on four factors: masculinity -- the need for "ostentatious manliness;" "uncertainty avoidance" -- the extent to which cultures are threatened by the unknown; individualism; and the "power distance" -- how much influence a person has over another who is seen as less powerful.
Boeing then compared each factor with each country's accident rate per million departures.
Masculinity and uncertainty avoidance seemed to have almost no relevance to accident rates. But there was a clear correlation between accident rates and the other two factors. Countries with a high rate of individualism had low accident rates, while countries where people in lower positions tend to defer more to superiors had higher accident rates.
Countries with both low individualism and a large "power distance" index appear to have accident rates 2.6 times greater than those at the other end of the scale.
The lowest accident rates were in the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and most West European countries. In the middle were Japan, India, Argentina, Brazil, Iran, Greece, Turkey and a smattering of other countries. At the top, with the worst rates were most Latin American countries -- including Panama, Colombia and Venezuela -- and Asian countries such as Korea, China, Pakistan and Thailand.
"We're not handing this up as the holy grail," said Boeing spokesman Randy Harrison, stressing that the company was relying on someone else's research and that numerous other factors have a bearing on aviation safety.
That was the main theme of Boeing's annual safety survey, entitled "Removing Links in the Accident Chain." Rather than concentrate on the causes of aviation disasters, the company this year asked what would have prevented the accident.
Almost no accidents take place for one reason. Aviation safety professionals often refer to accident causes as a "thin chain" -- if any one of the links had been broken, the accident would not have happened. For instance, a captain makes a mistake that the copilot and the air traffic controller do not catch, while on-board warning equipment malfunctions. While "pilot error" might be the "probable cause," the accident could have been prevented by a change in any of the other factors.
Boeing found a surprise here too. The most serious accidents with the greatest death tolls had the most links in the thin chain, sometimes as many as 20. "The more serious the accident, the more opportunities we had to prevent it," Russell said.
The standard sections of the survey showed that worldwide jet aviation deaths are averaging about 560 a year. Most accidents take place on takeoff or landing, and the greatest type of accident continues to be "controlled flight into terrain" -- a crew flying an otherwise airworthy plane into the ground or a mountainside. And, as usual, the primary cause -- 73.7 percent -- has been related to the flight crew.
Other factors rose in importance, however, including the need of Boeing and other manufacturers to better design planes for pilots. Airline procedures, while hardly ever mentioned as a "cause," emerged as an important prevention strategy.
"Don't just point at the flight crews," Russell said. "Everybody's in this game."
There were regional differences. In the United States, Canada and Europe, numerous factors emerged as part of the thin chain, including crew procedure, design, maintenance and inspection. In Latin America and Asia, piloting skills and procedures were the major areas of concern. In Africa, a range of piloting factors emerged, but so did Africa's poor airport infrastructure and weather information availability.