National Culture in Aviation

National Culture

National Culture is the common values, shared normalities, and practices an individual brings from his own nationality to the flight deck.

There are many multicultural airlines today and this is only increasing as new alliances and partnerships are formed.
The influence of culture often goes unrecognised but in aviation the fact that a functional crew requires high levels of communication, co-ordination and teamwork in normal and more importantly emergency situations causes individuals cultural differences to surface.

Many flight crews meet for the first time in the pre-flight briefings. This can make it hard to establish a team spirit especially if the pilots have different nationalities. These differences may cause crew uncertainty, hesitation and frustration all of which are serious safety threats.

Geert Hofstede worked as a part of an international research team; it remains the largest single investigation into cross-cultural work values with more than 88,000 responses from 70+ countries. In his work he derived dimensions of national culture; Power distance, Individualism/collectivism, uncertainty avoidance and masculinity. A fifth dimension was later added from the work of Michael Harris Bond and his associates called long vs. short term orientation.

Cultural Dimensions

Power Distance

Is one’s feeling towards hierarchy. It is the way a Captain and Co-pilot interact because of their seat position. In a high power distance culture (e.g. India) the social inequality is accepted and leaders are expected to be decisive and self-sufficient, while the subordinates should know there place and not question there superiors. In a low power distance culture (e.g. Austria) all citizens treat and view each other as team mates or colleagues there is no gap between boss and employ, captain and co-pilot. This will effect the management, teamwork and communication between the crew.

Individualism and Collectivism

This determines whether one’s goals are self orientated or team orientated. In the cockpit this may determine the teamwork and problem solving ability of the crew. Individualists cultures (e.g. US, Australia, Great Britain) view there actions in a narrow minded frameset of personal costs and benefits and group involvements are seen as costs or rewards. In this culture independence and self-sufficiency are valued, individuals like to express their personal own opinions, and communication is direct, personal and feedback precise and always verbal. Emphasis is placed on resolving conflicts rather than simply agreeing. Where as in Collectivist Cultures (e.g. Iran, and many Asian and South American Countries) individuals express concern for the implications of their actions towards the group, being a part of a group is highly valued and you have obligations to your group. They also tend to have a stronger acceptance of fate, tending to cause low stress levels. It is possible to commonly link collectivism to a high power distance in a culture because authority is rarely challenged in a group orientated society.

Uncertainty Avoidance

Is the extent to which people feel threatened in unfamiliar situations or conditions and of one’s need for defined structures and procedures. In the flight deck this may affect how each pilot reacts to an emergency situation and how each crew member embraces protocol. High uncertainty avoidance cultures (e.g. Latin America, Latin Europe) are very emotional and expressive with loud voices and sweeping gestures, they will feel more stressed at work with preference to Standard Operating Procedures and a stable environment leaving as little as possible to chance and often communication is very direct. The lowest uncertainty avoidance cultures (e.g. Most Anglo, Nordic and Asian countries) uncertain situations and conditions are viewed as part of the job or part of life, and individuals seem more tolerant and flexible.


This division determines the one’s feeling towards traditional male and female values. In the flight crew this will affect how much value the men and women place in their working relationship. In a masculine culture (e.g. Switzerland) there is a stronger gender differentiation in which males are assertive, competitive and value wealth relative to the female population. In feminine cultures (e.g. Norway) value in placed on the quality of life and relationships, male and female populations generally value assertiveness, competitiveness and wealth the equally.

Long vs. short term orientation

This describes the individual cultures orientation towards the future and the present. This in not a major effect in aviation working culture but it is a difference and can create friction between individuals. In long term orientated cultures (e.g. China) people are focused on future goals and actions are taken to achieve these. Value is placed on an individual’s thrift and perseverance. Where as in short term orientated cultures (e.g. US and NZ) one’s focus is on fulfilling social obligations of the present, protecting one’s ‘face’ and respecting for tradition.

Other Cultural Differences

  • Communication/Language
  • Humour
  • Religion
  • Politics
  • Use of automation
  • Environmental Beliefs

These differences in culture can create friction between individuals slowing teamwork and decision making also decreasing one another’s trust. The largest of this group is communication, the universal language for aviation is English but most cultures have a different accent and use of it. This slows crew co-ordination and causes misunderstandings.

Example- Avianca Flight 052

One example of how these dimensions affect the flight crew was the Avianca Flight 052 January 1990 a 707 departed Colombia on track to New York. The weather was marginal at best and the aircraft was put into holding patterns on track at three different times for a total of 1 hour and 17 minutes. At New York there was one missed approach and then the aircraft crashed on a second attempt 15miles out from fuel exhaustion. Firstly the captain showed signs of high uncertainty avoidance and individualism, he was committed to his course of action (New York) he did not stop to consider the fuel used in the holding patterns or an alternate destination due to the weather or fuel situations. The flight engineer and First Officer showed traits of high power distance, aware of the fuel situation the engineer only communicated with the steward about the state of urgency and although the GPWS sounded 15 times during the first approach the first officer voiced no concern. This accident illustrates how cultural behaviour with in a flight crew can combine into a tragic result.

More on Avianca Flight 052

National Example- Taiwan

A national case study, Taiwan showed the issues that can occur around open and honest incident reporting (Li, Harris, & Yu, 2008). Chinese culture prevails in Taiwan and many cultural dimensions present act as a hindrance to safety. Relevant area’s of the national culture present include a strong emphasis on collectivism, high levels of authoritianism and the existence of a punishment culture where errors are not examined to find out what happened, the individual who committed the error is often instead summarily punished. Various incident reporting schemes have been established at both a national and organisational level to try and reduce Taiwan’s high accident rate by identifying systemic issues but have suffered from poor buy in from pilots. This is not surprising when reports from one such scheme were used to punish individual pilots as opposed to examining deeper issues. Events like this then intimidate other pilots from reporting events, preventing a possible accident chain from being broken and allowing faults in the system to be addressed. Such issues can only be resolved from the top down. Management must lead by example and show that finding out why something happened is more significant than what happened and only once pilot’s feel they can report events free of prejudice will the accident rate come down.

CRM - The Solution

The solution to breaking barriers and increasing team efficiency has been around for many years - Crew Resource Management. Studies have however recommended that for best results, Crew Resource Management training needs to be tailored to the culture of the specific individuals receiving the training. Robert Helmreich, a leading academic on Aviation Psychology gave the example that in cultures of high Power distance, a First Officer should receive training that correcting or questioning the Captain is not so much concerned with disrespecting the Captain, but more about preventing events down the line that (for example) might lead to the Captain ‘losing face.’ A well designed training program should be able to overcome many cultural barriers (Helmreich, 1999).

More on Crew Resource Management

1. Garland, D., Hopkin, V., & Wise, J. (1999). Handbook of Aviation Human Factors. New Jersey: Lawerence/Erlbaum.
2. Helmreich, R., & Merritt, A. (1987). Culture at work in aviation and medicine. England: Ashgate.
3. Helmreich, R.L. (1999). Building Safety on the three Cultures in Aviation. In Proceedings of the IATA Human Factors Seminar (pp. 39-43). Bangkok, Thailand.
4. Li, C., Harris, D. & Yu, C. (2008). Routes to failure: Analysis of 41 civil aviation accidents from the Republic of China using the human factors analysis and classification system. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 40, 426-434.
5. Mcdonald, N. Fuller, R., & Johnston, N. (1995). Applications of Psychology to the Aviation System. England: Ashgate.
6. Weiner, E., Kanki, B., Helmreich, R. (1993). Cockpit Resource Management. Academic Press, San Diego, CA.

Want to know more?

Geert Hofstede - Wikipedia
Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions

Authors / Editors

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