Asiana crash focuses scrutiny on foreign pilots

Two men walk past the wreckage of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco International Airport. The July 6 crash has brought renewed scrutiny to foreign airlines' safety and training procedures.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

The Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco earlier this month in which three died and dozens were injured has focused attention on foreign airline safety and training procedures at a time when international air travel has boomed.

Federal investigators are trying to determine how three pilots who were in the cockpit allowed the landing speed and altitude of their Boeing 777, which had no known mechanical problems, to drop to dangerous levels. The crew’s training, qualifications and experience are under examination, accident investigation experts say.


Asiana Airlines has defended its safety record and, in a statement to The Times, said its pilot training program meets or exceeds South Korean, U.S. and international standards. But in the wake of the San Francisco crash, carrier officials added that they were “in the process of reexamining our procedures and training.”

Significant disparities exist between the safety practices of major U.S. airlines and those of some foreign operators, experts say.

The United States and a handful of European nations, by a wide margin, have better-trained pilots, more sophisticated regulatory agencies that closely monitor operations, and airlines that vastly exceed minimum government requirements, according to a wide range of aviation experts in the U.S.

Although all commercial airlines that fly into the U.S. must meet minimum international standards, only a few rise to the same level as the domestic industry.

“I refer to the United States as the gold standard,” said Marion Blakey, former chief of both the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board and now president of the trade group Aerospace Industries Assn. “It would be impossible to point to a safer system.”

To be sure, many foreign airlines have excellent safety records and well-trained crews. Accident rates and fatalities have been declining worldwide since 2000.

But international accident statistics bear out Blakey’s assessment.

Since 1990, foreign-based airlines have accounted for 87% of nearly 300 crashes worldwide, even though they represent a much smaller share of passenger traffic. The FAA has restricted or banned air carriers from 23 nations, largely in Asia and Africa, from entering U.S. airspace. European authorities have blacklisted nearly 300 airlines.

Last year, the aviation arm of the United Nations and the International Air Transport Assn., which represents more than 240 carriers, launched a safety task force in Africa, where the accident rate is more than four times the world average. In addition, the FAA is evaluating India’s Directorate General for Civil Aviation because of recent lapses in airline safety, some involving Air India pilots.

Although Asiana is not among the restricted airlines, it has had at least six serious safety incidents since 1990, including the San Francisco crash. The most deadly was a 1993 crash of a Boeing 737, which struck a mountain ridge while trying to land in South Korea, killing 68.

Other incidents included a runway collision that heavily damaged a Russian airliner in Alaska and a hard landing in Japan in 2009 that damaged the plane’s rear fuselage. Japanese investigators determined that the pilot erred by coming in with the nose too high.

The largest U.S. carriers have not had a major crash in more than a decade.

The Federal Aviation Administration does not openly talk about the disparity between the safety of U.S. and foreign operators, but it is quietly addressed in some cases.

Air traffic controllers at Los Angeles International Airport, for example, advise foreign pilots to use automated systems for landing — a reflection of concerns about proficiency and language problems.

A century of aviation in the U.S. has resulted in a huge pool of pilots competing for coveted jobs, allowing only the best to move up through the ranks from general aviation to charter operators to commuter airlines to major carriers.

By the time a copilot is seated in a major carrier’s cockpit, he or she has thousands of hours of experience, even though the FAA currently requires just 250.

“These foreign countries don’t have the pipeline in all the aspects of aviation that we do, not only pilots but mechanics, engineers and inspectors,” said Robert Ditchey, a former vice president for operations at US Airways.

Without such a merit-based system, some countries can end up with pilots selected more because of their government or family connections, said Jack Panosian, a former Northwest Airlines captain who teaches aviation law at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona.

“What you have at the end of the day is a lot of nepotism,” Panosian said. “Their father is a pilot or they have connections at the ministry.”

One problem, Panosian said, is that those pilots are not as willing to question superiors in the cockpit, saying military or political connections create a system of “super-seniority” at some foreign airlines.

Most nations’ aviation systems are overseen by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a Montreal-based agency of the United Nations. Asiana said in its statement that it meets all the training and safety rules recommended by the group, which can be similar to the FAA’s.

Nonetheless, the carrier is not subject to all of the same oversight and checks as U.S. airlines. The Asiana crew did not have to undergo mandatory alcohol and drug testing after the accident, because under international law the U.S. government cannot impose such tests.

After the Asiana crash, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) proposed that more stringent training requirements already set for U.S. airline pilots be extended to those who fly for foreign carriers into the United States.

“There is no reason that American passengers should be put at risk by poorly trained pilots in other countries,” Schumer said at a news conference in Washington.

Schumer wants foreign operators to meet even stricter FAA standards set to come out next year. Historically, the FAA has kept increasing U.S. safety standards and it can take some time before the rest of the world catches up, which partly accounts for U.S. leadership in safety.

An FAA official said that forcing other nations to follow all of our rules could lead to a patchwork of regulations around the world.

“They could make us follow their rules,” said Michael Barr, a safety expert and aviation accident investigation instructor at USC. Barr said some foreign nations allow criminal charges to be filed against flight crews for accidents that do not involve drugs or alcohol — a possibility in the Asiana crash.

Although foreign pilots may have thousands of hours in the cockpit, they often lack the rigorous experience of making frequent landings that U.S. pilots have. In many cases, those foreign pilots fly long international routes with backup crews, allowing them to rack up hours with few landings. They also lean more heavily on automated landings.

“There is no comparison between experience levels,” Panosian said. “Not all 10,000 hours are equal.”

“The pilots’ skill sets will degrade over time if they are not making manual landings,” Barr added. “Is this the guy you want to make a manual landing in fog if the instrument system goes down?”

Statements by the Asiana pilots in interviews with the NTSB after the accident also raised concerns. The pilots said they thought the aircraft’s auto-throttle system, a type of cruise control for jetliners, was maintaining adequate speed, implying that they had come to rely on the automated system and were not monitoring air speed as they should have every few seconds.

The Asiana crash comes after significant efforts to improve air safety at South Korea’s largest carrier, Korean Air. It accumulated one of the worst records in the history of commercial aviation during the 1980s and ‘90s with crashes that killed about 750.

The airline’s problems were blamed in news accounts at the time on rapid expansion and the hiring of inexperienced pilots. In addition, many Korean Air pilots were military veterans who tended to ignore the warnings or advice of younger copilots.

The company hired a retired Delta Air Lines vice president, who overhauled training. Less senior copilots were encouraged to challenge captains. Promotions were based on merit rather than connections and friendships.

The reforms led to a significant improvement in Korean Air’s safety practices.

Now the NTSB is taking a hard look at the same issues with Asiana. Former NTSB chairman Jim Hall said federal investigators will probe Asiana’s crew training, experience and situational awareness.

“The information that the NTSB has revealed from the cockpit voice recorder leads to questions of who was in command and what was going on in the cockpit,” Hall said.