Cultural factors have long been suggested as a cause for cockpit human factors accidents. This, however, is rocky ground - not only for the politically correct, but for all responsible people and organisations - because nobody can say for certain that it is true.

There has never been a thorough academic study of this most complex of issues, and anyone who sees fit to pronounce upon it should be able to produce hard evidence, not just anecdotes and circumstantial evidence from selected events. The latter only serve to confirm prejudices based on perceived national personality stereotypes.

Meanwhile, using hard evidence, it is undeniable that the Asia-Pacific region has a bad recent airline safety record. Whenever an identifiable region has a period in which safety shortcomings are dramatically apparent, the cultural theories are given a new lease of life. In fact, most of those Asia-Pacific airlines which have suffered the recent accidents have a poor long-term record when compared with the best in the same region, let alone in the rest of the world. The trouble is that the airlines in that region which have achieved high safety standards are tarred with the same brush as those who fail.

The preferred solution to all regional safety problems, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), is that the heads of all the regional national aviation authorities should set up a permanent body of air transport infrastructure experts to audit the whole system for safety flaws. The rationale is simple: a system which fails too often has weaknesses. Find the weak points and strengthen them.

There is only one culture which has any validity in this process, and it is not ethnically related. It is the culture of safety. It is true that some regions, some nations, some airlines, have a strong safety culture while others do not. There is a strong case for saying that the regions which, like Europe or North America, have a powerful safety culture, have two factors in common: a very long, mature, aviation tradition which has given them time to build a complete industry infrastructure - including one for safety oversight; and mature economies, which has given them the money to do it. Nations which are lacking either or both of these safety building blocks can still build a safety culture and the infrastructure which translates intention into action, but they have to do it in a shorter time and with slimmer resources. Some have done it.

In the Asia-Pacific region, ICAO's recommendation has not been translated into action. Individually, two of the nations, and their flag carriers, which have the most work to do to build a safety reputation - Taiwan's carrier China Air Lines (CAL)and Korean Air (KAL) - have begun to implement safety plans. Both airlines have looked for scapegoats within their aviation authorities and fired them. Taiwan has set up a new safety investigation and oversight agency based on the USA's National Transportation Safety Board. CAL, meanwhile, is setting up an alliance with Singapore Airlines (SIA) from which it hopes to benefit not only in commercial terms but from SIA's safety expertise. KAL has been safety-audited by the Flight Safety Foundation and had US carrier Delta Air Lines plan a complete operations department overhaul.

It is sad, however, that it has taken years of serious accidents to produce these positive moves. Even sadder is the perfectly reasonable suspicion that safety action has been forced by economics. The Taiwanese and South Korean travelling public have been voting with their feet and travelling with the respective flag carriers' rivals EVA and Asiana. With both flag carriers now incurring massive losses as the result of Asia's economic crisis, they have finally been forced to address fundamental safety issues such as improving pilot training.

Action has now arrived in the form of an encouraging example of the "buddy" system, much favoured by the International Air Transport Association, in which the proven carriers and countries help those who have some improving to do. ICAO's proposal, however, is the long-term way forward. Attacking safety country by country, airline by airline, is essential. The best way to win the war, however, is a combined, regional attack on the system's weaknesses.

Source: Flight International