There is no point in an airline carrying out a safety audit unless its employees, from chief executive to check-in clerk, are prepared to hear the truth, to recognise it as the truth, and then implement the findings.

That may not be easy. Implementation may demand a total change in a company culture, and a in the way that individual employees think about their own work, knowledge and skills, their immediate colleagues, and their place in the company team.

Korean Air (KAL) is undergoing an audit now, having suffered 11 serious accidents since 1990. By anyone's standards, those numbers represent the symptoms of a system in trouble. If any Korean employee thinks that the airline does not have a safety problem, or that he or she has no part to play in correcting the situation, then the audit might as well be thrown in the bin now for all the good it will do.

KAL is not alone in having a poor safety record. There are many airlines which do. China Airlines (CAL) is one of them. After the disastrous CAL accident at Nagoya, Japan in 1994 the airline's management acted, or said it did. Heads rolled, a safety review was carried out, crews were retrained. Then in February 1998, at the airline's own base - Taipei - another tragedy occurred involving the same aeroplane type and the same basic handling errors as at Nagoya. In both events the aircraft were carrying out a go-around manoeuvre with perfectly serviceable aeroplanes and the pilots lost control. Since the Taipei crash Taiwan has acted to set up a safety body like the US National Transportation Safety Board. It will do no good at all unless the airline is prepared to listen to the results of a constructive, independent safety audit of its way of doing things, to open its corporate mind to what is behind the accidents it has suffered and what it will take to make safety happen.

In KAL's recent reluctant acknowledgement of a leaked internal safety report which makes chilling reading, the airline has made a worrying statement about the report's nature. KAL says that the reporter, a senior training captain, went beyond the scope of what was expected from the audit. Well, if an airline wants a safety audit that will be completely useless, all it has to do is give the auditor a form with a list of boxes to tick and instructions not to add anything else.

When Korean's codeshare partner Delta Air Lines has completed its independent safety audit, is KAL going to ignore anything which clashes with traditional ways? Time will tell.

On the other hand, Korean's executive vice-president Yi Taek Shim shows a fine grasp of the most powerful safety incentive of all, and it is not threats from an aviation authority or recommendations from a transportation safety board. He says that if the airline does not improve, it will become "isolated in the airline industry, unable to survive."

Airlines today face more competition in a rapidly liberalising global market. Progressively fewer routes are flown by two airlines only. Passengers have choice where they did not before, and one of the products they will consciously be purchasing when they buy a ticket is safety. Any airline that is perceived to be significantly less safe than a competitor will either lose customers or have to bribe them on board by accepting lower yields. Put simply, safety has always been good business, but it is becoming more important. Having to lower yields when increased competition has already made them marginal is becoming more damaging.

There is another commercial force to be reckoned with. If an airline wants to become, and remain, a part of a global alliance, or even to simply codeshare as Korean does with Delta, it cannot afford to become an embarrassment to its partners. It is no accident that Delta is carrying out the KAL safety audit. There was a fuss in the USA when it was found that many passengers on board the September 1998 Swissair Boeing MD-11 when it crashed off Nova Scotia were flying on Delta flight numbers, and Swissair has one of the world's best safety records. Delta is clearly not indifferent to the reaction there would be if Delta passengers were to come to harm on a flight operated by KAL, or on any other of its partner airlines.

Source: Flight International