1. The chapter opens with the story of the crash of Korean Air flight 801. The plane was in good condition. The weather was bad, but not too bad. As the captain and the first officer bring the plane into land, they can’t see the runway. Alarms begin to go off as they get closer and closer to the ground. The flight engineer suggests that the captain pull up and try again. A short while later he suggests this again. This time the captain agrees, but three seconds later the plane slams into the side of a mountain, killing almost everyone aboard.
Another story: this time the story of a plane crash. If this story seems strange, that’s because it is. The first pass at the story contains no good explanation for why the plane went down. Plane crashes are rare, but they are often devastating and tragic, and we demand explanations for them. Gladwell wants the reader to ask how and why these pilots failed to land the plane.
2. Korean air had a spate of crashes in the 80’s and 90’s that earned them a bad reputation and threatened their continued existence as an airline. Pilots were found by investigators to be under-trained, and the proper safety protocol wasn’t being followed. But, amazingly, Korean air turned itself around. Since 1999, they have a perfect safety record. It is now as safe as any airline in the world. And the reason Korean Air succeeded was because it “acknowledged the importance of its cultural legacy.”
The second half of this story also demands an explanation: Korean Air turned itself around, but how did it manage to do so? This is how Gladwell will begin in earnest to discuss the importance of addressing cultural legacies when it comes to avoiding tragedy and failure.
3. Gladwell says that, though plane crashes are often portrayed in movies as the results of a single catastrophic event, in reality they occur because of the accumulation of many small problems. Bad weather, tired pilots, new or unfamiliar airports, crew members who have only recently started to work together—it often takes all of these things to add up to disaster. “The typical accident involves seven consecutive human errors.”
The reader can think of airplane crashes as outliers of failure in the same way that people like Bill Gates are successful outliers. They are rare, and when they do happen, it is because of a confluence of various seemingly unrelated factors.
4. Suren Ratwatte is a veteran pilot who has studied aircraft disasters. He confirms that the typical crash involves exhausted pilots, poor communication, poor decision-making, and misunderstanding. It is not often bad piloting that causes plane crashes: it is the pilots’ inability to do all of the other things that flying a plane involves: talking, improvising, multitasking, listening.
Gladwell further breaks down our preconceptions of airplane crashes—often, it is not bad piloting or harsh weather that causes them. As with the predictors of success, unseen easily overlooked factors can make a big difference.
5. Ratwatte tells the story of a time he had to make an unexpected landing at an unfamiliar airport when one of his passengers fell ill. The plane was full of fuel, and therefore too heavy to land in normal conditions. He had to land against the wind, which meant coming into the airport in the opposite direction than what was usually allowed. He told Air Traffic Control what he needed, he enlisted the help of his entire crew to keep things running smoothly, and put the massive heavy jet on the ground in time to save the ill passenger. This success came about because he stayed calm, communicated himself clearly, and listened to what his inferiors and peers were telling him.
Ratwatte’s story underscores this: the reader should note how many things Ratwatte had to do to get the plane safely on the ground. He had to be a good leader, a good listener, a good communicator, a quick thinker. Recall the earlier discussion of thresholds in Chapter 3. Once a pilot becomes skilled enough to fly and land a plane, then other factors begin to influence his success (or failure). The question we should be asking is, What are these other skills and how did Ratwatte develop them?
6-8 In contrast, Gladwell provides the transcript from another doomed flight, Avianca 052. The plane has had to divert several times from its planned landing and is running dangerously low on fuel. The pilot repeatedly tells the first officer to tell Air Traffic Control (ATC) at the airport that their fuel levels have become a problem. The first officer tells ATC that the plane is “running out of fuel” but doesn’t use the word “emergency” or even seem very concerned. ATC asks them to divert again, and the first officer agrees. The plane runs out of fuel and crashes shortly after this final communication to ATC. Gladwell dissects the language used. The first officer and the pilot made suggestions and hints, but failed to commandingly tell ATC what the problem was. ATC did not interpret their words correctly and the result was a deadly crash.
The failure of these pilots resulted from their inability to communicate effectively, assert themselves, and insist on their own needs. Gladwell’s exhaustive examination of the pilots’ use of language conveys the complexity of airborne communication, and narrows down the earlier question: how does one become the kind of communicator who succeeds in the cockpit? Can this kind of close investigation of cockpit communication and language help to prevent future plane crashes?
9. Ratwatte notes that Air Traffic Control at JFK, the airport at which these pilots were trying to land, is notorious for its bluntness and even rudeness. And they are indeed short with the pilots in their communication. But all the pilots needed to do was tell them they definitively needed to land, which they never did. They deferred to the bitter end.
Nobody would expect that interpersonal factors like rudeness or intimidation could be the leading cause of a plane crash. But as Gladwell has shown throughout the book, easily overlooked or unlikely factors can be the primary determinants of success, or, as in this case, can lead to catastrophic failures.
10. Cross cultural psychologists have found that depending on where we are from, we conform to different rules in our speech and our interpretation. Some countries tolerate ambiguity more than others, some prefer to stick rigorously to rules and procedures. Some countries are called “low power-distance” countries—these are countries where things like rank and authority don’t have a huge effect on communication. Other countries have strict cultural rules regarding how one can speak to a superior, an elder, or even a stranger. These are “high power-distance” countries. It became clear that one way of stopping plane crashes might be to reduce the power-distance in the cockpit. This way first officers would not be afraid to voice a problem or a concern to the captain, and pilots would not defer so readily to ATC if a plane’s safety were at stake. Korea just so happens to be a high power-distance country.
Gladwell pulls back and discusses the phenomenon he has been describing in more detail. Our cultural legacies determine to some extent how we relate to one another. If we are from a culture where authority is respected above all else, we will find it harder—even when lives are at stake—to challenge what we perceive to be a higher authority. Conversely, if we are from a culture where standing up to superiors is commonplace, we will not be intimidated by demonstrations of authority and will continue to communicate our opinions regardless of whatever power discrepancy might be present.
11-12. Gladwell dives back into the Korean Air flight 801 crash with which he began the chapter. He notes that when the first officer makes comments about the weather, he is trying to tell the captain that the weather conditions are dangerous. When he comments on how much he appreciates having weather radar in the cockpit, he means to suggest that the captain take a look at the radar. Korea’s culture is one in which the listener is expected to pick up on subtle cues like this. But the captain was tired, and didn’t hear what his first officer was trying to tell him. This failure of communication caused the plane crash.
Korean social norms had a direct effect on what happened in this cockpit. Korean speech tends to put a great deal of interpretive responsibility on the listener. Speakers are not blunt, because they usually don’t have to be. The listener will pick up on subtle cues and grasp their meaning without the speaker ever having to say what he means directly. But when the listener is a captain in an airplane, when he is tired and multitasking, this cultural trend becomes dangerous, and in this case led to a crash.
13. In 2000, Korean Air brought in experts to help them improve their communication in the cockpit. They began speaking in English, a language that didn’t belong to their culture, and in a sense allowed them to have a different kind of identity when speaking. The pilots could participate in a different cultural legacy, at least when they were in the cockpit.
Gladwell, as ever, remains solution oriented: though cultural legacies are powerful; though they have a major impact on the way we behave and relate to the world, they can be addressed, and counteracted when necessary.