Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and his explanation for plane crashes

Malcolm Gladwell, the celebrated author whose new book "Outliers" was recently published, talks about hierarchies and the problems it causes in plane crashes. In an interview, he gives the example of a crash of a Colombian airliner, stating that it was the country's hierarchical culture and a pilot's over-respect for authority that was partly to blame for the crash (listen to the interview here). In fact, Gladwell says that there is a strong correlation between plane crashes and the national culture (ie respect for hierarchy) of the pilots.

In my book, I've analyzed the world's worst aviation accident, the one that occurred in Tenerife, Spain, in which 583 people died. In that accident, a KLM 747 jumbo that was taking off collided with a Pan Am jumbo on the runway.

The KLM (Dutch) airliner hadn't been cleared for take-off because the Pan Am was still on the runway; nonethless, the KLM's captain began taking off. But what had happened in the cockpit was this: the flight engineer (lower ranked than the captain), questioned the captain, asking if the Pan Am had cleared the runway. The captain curtly said 'yes', saying the Pan Am was indeed off the runway. Effectively told to shut up, the flight engineer kept quiet. The captain got plane going, straight into the path of the Pan Am (it was foggy, so the pilots of both aircraft couldn't see one another).

Note that KLM is from Holland, a culture that is not as hierarchic as Colombia's. Nonetheless, the flight engineer kept quiet once his captain shut him up. The point that I am making is that while Gladwell says national culture plays a part, I am saying that the real issue is the power equation between a boss and his subordinate - in this case, the captain and the flight engineer.

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