ICAO: Cross-Cultural Factors in Aviation Safety


ICAO addressed awareness of cultural interfaces and the impact of cross-cultural factors on aviation safety in the 2004 circular Human Factors Digest no 16 Cross-Cultural Factors in Aviation Safety.1 The circular presents the safety case for cultural interfaces in aviation safety with reference to three established conceptual safety models: the SHEL model, Reason’s model of latent conditions, and the Threat and Error Management (TEM) model. The following discussion summarises the key messages from the circular.

Chapter 1. Culture, context and cultural interfaces in aviation

Culture and context

1.1.2 “Culture” means the ongoing interaction of a group of people with their environment. Culture develops and changes due to technological, physical, and social changes in the environment.

1.5. Culture is embedded in four general contexts: political, physical, social, and economic. Aviation activities occur within these four general contexts. The features of these contexts are as follows.

Geographic and Physical
Geography and terrain complexity
Climate and weather
Population dispersion and accessibility
Economic and Political
National wealth, income, tax
Population size and density
Economic and political stability
Socially agreed upon ways of making sense of the environment
Group’s preferred ways of thinking, acting, and interacting
Behaviours and norms
Airline Operating Context
International and local aviation regulations
Airline policies and procedures
Manuals and documentation
Maintenance/ground equipment

Cultural interfaces

1.15. Within a cultural group, fellow members and the environment are more predictable, making routines easier and quicker. This gives a sense of security and confidence, enhancing efficiency within the culture. These cultural efficiencies are challenged when we encounter members or objects from another culture. When this occurs the environment becomes less certain and predictable, and required greater effort.

1.16. Aviation it is inherently a cross-cultural activity because it often involves flight between and over different countries. This results in an abundance and diversity of cultural interfaces. For example:

Person or object Interaction at cultural interface
Pilots Multicultural flight crews
Air traffic controllers Communications in foreign airspace and with foreign flight crews
Passengers Different service expectations
Investigators Different legal and administrative regimes
Aircraft manuals Subject to translation or interpretation for use in foreign countries
Regulations and legal frameworks Created and operating in specific economic, political, and social contexts, and interpreted and applied in foreign countries

1.22. There are four possible responses when members of one culture encounter members or object of another:

Option Explanation Cross-border airline merger example
Assimilation (A > B) A learns and adopts the ways of B The practices of the larger airline are adopted
Assimilation (A < B) B learns and adopts the ways of A The practices of the larger airline are adopted
Integration (A + B) A and B learn each other’s ways and compromise A pilot’s committee reviews and creates procedures for the new entity
Separation (A | B) A and B ignore each other’s ways and do not change Pilots identify solely with their former (original) airline

Chapter 2. The safety case for cultural interfaces in aviation


2.4. The SHEL model concerns the interaction of Liveware (humans) with, Software (procedures), Hardware (machines), the Environment and other Liveware. For an overview of the SHEL model, see http://aviationknowledge.wikidot.com/aviation:human-factors-models.

2.5. Cultural factors may be considered within the SHEL framework in the following ways:

Liveware Cultural factors in a social system influencing individuals in their work environment
Liveware-Hardware Different levels of exposure between cultures to particular technologies
Liveware-Software Tailoring documentation to fit the cultural norms of the intended readers
Liveware-Liveware Possibility for cross-cultural confusing and misunderstandings as to behaviours, norms, and values
Liveware-Environment Different impacts of political and environmental constraints

Reason’s Model of Latent Conditions

2.12. According to Professor James Reason’s model of latent conditions, it is typical for there to be several causes and contributing factors converging in time and space to create an unsafe situation. For an overview of the Reason model, see http://aviationknowledge.wikidot.com/aviation:accident-causation-model.

2.16. Cultural interfaces can be considered a latent condition if they are not given explicit attention. For example, cultural interfaces may contribute to the causes of unsafe situations by creating uncertainty and the potential for misunderstanding.

2.17. If cultural interfaces are identified, understood, and managed, the chances that they will contribute to the generation of a human error will be lessened.

The Threat and Error Management Model

2.18. According to the Threat and Error Management (TEM) model, a typical line of flight involves inevitable and mostly inconsequential threats and errors, some human and some external. The TEM model allows cultural interfaces to become visible and immediate concerns, rather than latent conditions. For an overview of the TEM model, see http://aviationknowledge.wikidot.com/aviation:tem-model.

2.20. Cultural interfaces can be “threats” for the purposes of the TEM model because their origin is external to the flight crew, they can be detected and managed (or ignored), they are part of the operating environment of the flight crew, attention to them is necessary to maintain safety margins, and they carry the potential to be a threat.

Chapter 3. A dominant model in aviation: some consequences

3.1. In global aviation, the cross-cultural interactions are usually weighted in favour of a more dominant group or culture. That dominance is seen in the following areas:

Manufacturing The major civil aircraft manufacturers are based in North America and Western Europe, and market forces mean that producers in other regions must build their products to confirm with American and European certification standards.
Markets and standards The United States has historically been the dominant actor in the process of liberalisation and deregulation of the global airline industry. It is also the world’s largest and most lucrative air transportation market. Further, a large proportion of all aircraft departures occur in either the United States or Western Europe, which means that these regions have the ability to influence international standards for civil aviation operations, including through the ICAO framework.
Research and technology Most technological research and development has occurred in countries that are politically stable and resource-rich – namely, the United States and Western Europe. That research is typically directed and solving local problems or advancing local interests, and the results are then transferred to other parts of the world.

3.15. The strong influence of North American and Western European culture in aviation is evident in a number of weighted cultural interfaces. Some examples include:

  • Identification of problems: The dominant researchers in North America and Europe focus on research to improve safety by relatively small margins, raising the question whether the more obvious and widespread safety issues in other parts of the world are being identified and given adequate attention.
  • Solutions: High technology such as ground proximity warning systems is effective, but is not viable in parts of the developing world.
  • Language: English is the dominant language in aviation.
  • Training: Airlines in some countries use training packages supplied by North American and European suppliers.
  • Transfer of technology: In some parts of the world the uptake of new technology involves greater difficulties because of the lack of experience in the use of earlier related technologies.
  • Regulation: Civil aviation regulations may be transplanted from one region to another without due consideration for their suitability in the receiving country.

Chapter 4. The way forward

4.5. Training can assist people to see beyond their own cultural boundaries and to accept other cultures. This requires people to look objectively at their own culture, to identify its strengths and weaknesses, and to see the strengths and weaknesses of other cultures. It is then possible for people to understand how and why something that works in their own culture may not work in another culture, and vice versa.

4.9. It is also important to analyse and explain the dominant model and its assumptions.

4.13. It is possible to focus attention on cultural interfaces through data-driven research. The benefit is that focusing on cultural interfaces places cultural issues within the operating context where they can be studied objectively and with an operational focus.

4.17. Finally, there is value in using people who have experienced two or more cultures to help to explain the practices and logic of one culture to members of another.

1. ICAO - INTERNATIONAL CIVIL AVIATION ORGANIZATION (2004). Human factors digest no 16. Cross-Cultural Factors in Aviation Safety. Circular 302-AN/175. ICAO (Montreal, Canada), 2004.


1 ICAO - INTERNATIONAL CIVIL AVIATION ORGANIZATION (2004). Human factors digest no 16. Cross-Cultural Factors in Aviation Safety. Circular 302-AN/175. ICAO (Montreal, Canada), 2004.

2 Paragraph numbers in this document correspond to the paragraph numbers in the ICAO circular. Because this document is intended as a summary, certain paragraphs have been omitted.

Want to know more?

There is a list of suggested reading appended to the circular, including the following selections:

Helmreich, R. and A. Merritt. Culture at Work in Aviation and Medicine: National, Organizational and Professional Influences. Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate, 1998.

Stewart, E. and M. Bennett. American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Intercultural Press, 1991.

Contributors to this page

Authors / Editors

Nick ChristiansenNick Christiansen

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