On 13 August 2011, the Korean pilot of a Chinese Juneyao Airbus A320 HO1112 refused to give way to a Qatar Airways’ Boeing 777-300ER QR888, which had declared an emergency for landing at the Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport.
The crew of the QR888 informed the ATC that it was running low on fuel which would only provide five more minutes of flight. The ATC subsequently arranged for the QR888 to land ahead of other aircrafts and request that the other inbound aircrafts give way. However, the HO1112 refused, even after the QR888 sent out its Mayday call, as well as six orders issued from the control tower, forcing air traffic controllers to organize another emergency landing strategy for QR888.
After the incident, an investigation revealed that the QR888 had a remaining fuel of 5 tons which is enough for half an hour of flying, and the HO1112 had two to three tons of fuel left, allowing it to fly for more than 40 minutes (Yeo, 2011).
Video embedded from YouTube on 28 Sep 2011
After the incident, several contributing factors and potential problems related to the incident were uncovered by several reports. Despite the various possible factors that led to the incident, this study focuses on the organizational safety culture as part of the potential causes of the incident. Three factors relating to this focus are included in this study.
The first stems from the Chinese airlines’ efforts to minimize the fuel they carry as part of an airline’s fuel saving strategy. The second problem reveals the Korean pilot's lack of sense of responsibility towards flight safety by ignoring the flight regulations; this also exposes the potential shortcomings in Chinese domestic airlines in recruiting and training foreign pilots. The third comes from an explanation about the fuel consumption being part of a pilot’s work evaluation, which contributed to the Korean pilot’s poor conduct in the incident. (Associated Press, 2011).
Organizational culture elements and their impact on organizational performance in safety
A system provide tools, facilities, procedures, rules and norms and management structures to individuals that work within the organizational system, and this creates the unique organizational environment and culture. Management attitude and their decisions can directly affect the structure and content of the working environment, factors from the external environment such as economic, political, mission or market factors also have such effect (Stolzer, Halford & Goglia, 2011). To apply this understanding in the Juneyao and Qatar’s incident, a likely scenario can be plotted as follow. External factors such as the soaring of international fuel prices and the increased air traffic congestion in China has putting pressures on Chinese airline who struggle to make profit; airline management consequently make decisions and issue policy for the airline’s aircraft to carry less fuel each flight to save fuel. The management’s decision created a working environment where pilots that work for the airline have to be committed in saving fuel for the airline, thus less care was given on the safety operation of each flight in order to meet management’s expectation.
Therefore, simply blaming the Korean pilot for violating flight regulation probably was not enough to address the problem arisen in the incident. The cause should also be traced by looking at the airline’s policy, procedures and controls that make up the workplace conditions under which employees work. Furthermore, markets, industry standards, legal and regulatory frameworks that affect the system’s environment should also be examined, because all of these elements together form the fundamental of an airline’s safety culture.
Effects of reward systems
Reward policies set up for certain behaviour or performance also impose certain effect on how culture interacts within an organization. While it is a common and certainly legitimate practice to reward employees for accomplishment of productive or mission goals, such rewards can easily lead to goal conflicts for employees (Stolzer et al. 2011). Safety operation is a common goal for any airlines in the industry; it also applies to Juneyao Airlines. However, such goal appears to be in some level, conflict with the goals of on-time performance and fuel saving as part of the airline’s cost control objective; therefore pilots are left in the dilemma to meet the airline’s objectives while they also strive to show a less consumption of fuel on their flight record in order to pass their work evaluations carried out by the airline.
In such a case, management may be unaware of the ambiguity they have created to their employees by setting those goals and make the reward policy. Management perception of the airline’s goals and objectives and the actual influence of their decision can often differ from that of the line employees which in this case, the pilots. The airline management’s decisions are perceived by the pilots, whose resulting behaviours may not be what were understood by policy makers at the time they set the goals and make the reward policy. Thus, this may creates the impression for pilots that they are being tacitly punished if they take the extra time to wait in the queue and use more fuel to ensure flight safety.
Norm exist when members of an organization comes to share a set of beliefs and principles of right action binding upon the members and serving to guide or regulate acceptable behaviour, these beliefs and behaviours often characterize an organization’s culture. An organization may create norms through both formal and informal means. Formal means can be achieved by establishing rules, regulations, SOPs etc; informal means is achieved through what is reinforced by the organization’s management (Stolzer et al. 2011). An organization’s expectations about performance and behaviour are conveyed to its employees by these means. By issuing policy on carrying less fuel each flight to save fuel, Juneyao airline’s management delivered its expectation on saving fuel for the airline to its pilots. As a consequence, pilots are prone to be more committed to abide to the norm in which case, the Korean pilot decide to circumvent the direct order from ATC by lying about its remaining fuel as to land quickly to save fuel.
Video embedded from YouTube on 28 Sep 2011
Associated Press. (2011). China low-fuel landing row reflects growing pains. Retrieved September 7, 2011 from http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/50425/china-low-fuel-landing-row-reflects-growing-pains.
Stolzer, A. J., Halford, C. D., & Goglia, J. J. (2011). Implementing safety management systems in aviation. England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.
Yeo, G. L. (2011). China's Juneyao faces CAAC sanctions after safety. Retrieved September 7, 2011 from http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2011/09/06/361566/chinas-juneyao-faces-caac-sanctions-after-safety-breach.html.