Much scrutiny has been given to the human variables in air safety regulation over the years. Indeed, human factors continue to remain the leading dynamic in the causes of global airline accidents, highlighting the importance of crew resource management (CRM) in pilot training. Traditional CRM practices focused on professional and organisational culture with the aim of reducing human error. However, with the emergence of increasingly ‘stateless’ low-cost carriers and evermore pilots seeking work abroad, higher numbers of multiethnic flight crew are taking to the skies. Doubtlessly, safety is a universal value, but it raises the question whether the influence of national culture has its place in CRM or not.
National culture is the blanket framework under which all humans behave. Despite the view by many that procedures and regulations render a ‘culture-free’ cockpit, several studies have shown the very real impact national culture has on communication between the captain with his or her subordinates (and vice versa). This itself may create safety hazards amongst a homogenous crew, but the differences between western and non-western crews in terms of behaviour, attitudes, working practices, roles and responsibilities further serve to complicate matters related to training and communication.
‘Power distance is quite possibly the most pivotal cultural dimension affecting flight safety. This concept relates the interaction between high-ranking individuals and subordinate personnel. In countries such as India where a high power distance exists, leaders are expected to be decisive and self-sufficient with subordinates placing utmost faith in their capabilities. Conversely, in countries such as Sweden where a much lower power distance is the norm, there is a stronger tendency for two-way appraisal and open conversation. In a cockpit environment, while the captain’s authority is vital, the interaction between the captain and first officer functions better under circumstances where the latter feels at ease to question the captain’s decisions. Indeed, there are several accidents attributed to the inability of subordinates to question a captain’s judgment because of an ingrained cultural ethos, including those which effected Korean Air and Avianca in the 1990s,’ comments the CEO of AviationCV.com, Skaiste Knyzaite.
Aside from power distance, the cultural variables of individualism and collectivism, masculinity and uncertainty avoidance all have their unique impacts on effective crew communication and flight safety. These can adversely affect crews from a shared national culture as well as to strike conflict and confusion in cockpits where multiethnic crews are assigned. Addressing national culture(s) as a key factor in CRM has shown encouraging results in mitigating these concerns. Indeed, by developing CRM programmes for airlines more congruent with national cultures, error management can be improved. This fosters wider understanding amongst crews of different ethnic backgrounds as well as to allow one to critically analyse whether a culturally-determined action contravenes the higher goal of flight safety.
‘Another seemingly less obvious factor is boredom. Without friendly chatter amongst flight crew, boredom can arise which has been shown to lead to undesired flight states. In many cases, crew of different cultural backgrounds may feel unease to engage in such conversation, resulting in lapses in communication, co-ordination and teamwork. This is becoming increasingly more relevant as airlines look beyond national borders to quickly secure qualified personnel during periods of heightened seasonal demand. However, contracting pilots at rapid notice may often leave cultural familiarity issues unaddressed. Fortunately, several flight crew leasing agencies like AviationCV are on hand to offer a wealth of practical advice to pilots concerning the cultural dynamics of working abroad, as well as pre-screening of candidates to determine their level of cross-cultural responsiveness and suitability,’ states Skaiste Knyzaite, CEO of AviationCV.com