Is Asiana Undermining Its Own Safety Chief? By IN-SOO NAM
Is Asiana Undermining Its Own Safety Chief?
String of incidents at South Korean airline prompts worries safety czar doesn’t have enough power
The damaged wheel of Asiana’s Airbus A320 after the plane skidded off the runway while landing in Hiroshima, Japan, on April 14.PHOTO: JAPAN TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD
SEOUL—Two years ago, in the wake of a fatal accident in San Francisco, Asiana AirlinesInc. brought in a high-profile expert to revamp safety procedures at the South Korean carrier.
But after a number of new safety concerns,including one last month where a jet skidded off a runway in Japan, some Asiana pilots and independent experts are questioning whether the company could be inadvertently undermining its safety czar’s effectiveness.
Asiana’s safety chief, Akiyoshi Yamamura, doesn’t have power over hiring and firing pilots, and can only propose measures that must be approved by a safety panel he doesn’t lead. That challenges his ability to effect meaningful change in safety policy, experts say.
For example, an Asiana pilots union leader said members aren’t using a hotline Mr. Yamamura established to anonymously propose safety improvements because they don’t think he has the authority to make changes.
The union, which counts more than 900 pilots, prefers to raise such matters through management-labor meetings, the leader said.
“There’s not much [Mr. Yamamura] can do alone in his capacity as chief safety officer. Although he is an executive, his reach is quite limited. He’s an outsider,” said Kim Byung-soo, an Asiana pilot.
Mr. Yamamura declined to comment. Asiana declined to comment on whether his effectiveness is undermined by the company’s corporate structure.
Seoul-based Asiana has had two recent safety incidents. On April 14, an Asiana plane skidded off a runway in Hiroshima, Japan, after hitting an approach light and a six-meter-tall communications tower just before touchdown, leaving 25 passengers injured.
Last year, Asiana was ordered to suspend its Incheon-Saipan route for a week after the airline found that pilots on a flight to the Pacific Island ignored an engine problem and continued the journey, in violation of safety rules; the captain lost his job over the incident.
Asiana, South Korea’s second-biggest airline behind Korean Air Lines Co., brought in Mr. Yamamura, now 67 years old, in December 2013 as executive vice president and chief safety officer, a newly created post. The Japanese aviation veteran had spent more than 40 years at Japan’s All Nippon Airways Co. as a pilot, safety officer and auditor, and had worked as a safety inspector at the International Air Transport Association.
‘There’s not much [Mr. Yamamura] can do alone in his capacity as chief safety officer. Although he is an executive, his reach is quite limited. He’s an outsider.’
—Asiana pilot Kim Byung-soo
Since joining Asiana, Mr. Yamamura, who leads a staff of 49 people, has increased training hours for pilots based on experience levels and tweaked lessons using feedback on difficult takeoffs and landings. For some pilots, training on new routes rose to 90 hours from 60 hours. He also set up the safety hotline.
But an Asiana spokesman said Mr. Yamamura isn’t responsible for detecting and punishing violators—a role experts say most safety czars have.
Mr. Yamamura’s role is limited to proposing measures, the spokesman said. His remit covers the entire company, but his department sits apart from the flight business division, which manages pilot personnel matters, the spokesman said.
Safety infractions are reported to a disciplinary division, which doesn’t report to Mr. Yamamura.
An Asiana spokesman said the roles of safety chiefs and the division between disciplinary and safety units are the prerogative of individual airlines, adding that structures vary across the industry.
Park Jun-soo, a director at Seoul’s transport ministry who worked as a safety inspector at the International Civil Aviation Organization, said there are no international rules on safety chiefs, but it is the industry’s best practice for them to have nearly full control over safety issues, including monitoring, detection and punishment of violations.
Tom Haueter, a former aviation safety officer at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board who Asiana hired as its representative during the San Francisco crash probe, said that while Asiana has been proactive in introducing safety programs that meet global standards, the limits on its safety chief are problematic.
“Like in other airlines, Asiana’s safety officer can’t make drastic changes alone. But he may need to have greater power to raise issues, investigate violations and direct changes,” said Mr. Haueter, whose term with the carrier ended once the NTSB report was completed. He met Mr. Yamamura, he said, but didn’t work with him.
Airlines that lack a strong chief safety officer also tend to have difficulties persuading pilots and mechanics to voluntarily report incipient hazards before they turn into incidents or accidents, since they are more likely to be punished for doing so. There is widespread agreement among experts, however, that such reports are essential to improving safety.
In contrast, experts point to Korean Air Lines, which hired an American, retired Delta Air Lines Inc. executive David Greenberg, as safety chief in 2000 after accidents in the late 1980s and 1990s tarnished its brand.
As Korean Air’s executive vice president for operations, Mr. Greenberg wasn’t directly involved in hiring and firing, but he was responsible for monitoring and discipline of safety infractions, as well as promotions and transfers, a Korean Air spokesman said, putting him on equal footing with other executives at the airline.
Mr. Greenberg, who left the airline in 2005, chaired safety-committee meetings and reported to the CEO what was discussed and adopted, a protocol that continues under Korean Air’s current safety chief, Michel Gaudreau. Mr. Gaudreau declined to comment.
In contrast, the safety panel Asiana set up in the wake of the San Francisco accident is chaired by Chief Executive Officer Kim Soo-cheon, a spokesman said. At monthly meetings, Mr. Yamamura can propose safety measures, which the body discusses and may adoptgiving him less autonomy than Korean Air’s safety czar.
Korean Air hasn’t had a major accident in years, which Jung Yun-sik, an aeronautical science professor at Kyungwoon University, attributed in part to Mr. Greenberg’s efforts and his power over discipline and personnel.
The cause of Asiana’s Hiroshima accident is still under investigation. Japan’s Transportation Safety Board said May 13 that the plane’s digital flight data recorder showed the captain appeared to try to turn the plane around and reattempt the landing two seconds before it hit the structure.
—Mitsuru Obe in Tokyo contributed to this article.