A culture clash leads to airline safety complications


I was intrigued to read about an airline safety issue caused by different cultures and the assumptions they produced.  In this case, no accident resulted, but it highlights an important conflict.

Investigators have traced a take-off weight error on a TUI Airways Boeing 737-800 to a flaw introduced to a reservations system by international differences in the manner that female passengers are addressed.

. . .

… the programming upgrade had been carried out in a country where the title ‘Ms’ was used for adult women while ‘Miss’ referred to a female child.

When adult female passengers in the UK checked in for the flight from Birmingham using the term ‘Miss’, they were automatically classified as a child and allocated the standard child weight of 35kg rather than the standard female weight of 69kg.

The UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch says 38 female passengers were misidentified as children and this meant the loadsheet generated for the flight to Palma de Mallorca, on 21 July last year, was more than 1.2t below the actual aircraft weight.

. . .

Although incorrect take-off weights were used, the thrust level employed was slightly higher than that required for the conditions.

“This meant the safe operation of the aircraft was not compromised,” says the inquiry.

But it states that the 737 involved (G-TAWG) was the first of three aircraft to depart from the UK on the same date with inaccurate loadsheets caused by the same issue.

There’s more at the link.

This isn’t the first time that differences between countries, standards and cultures have produced airline safety issues.  Perhaps the best known happened in Canada in 1983.

On July 23, 1983, Air Canada Flight 143, a Boeing 767–233 jet, ran out of fuel at an altitude of 12,500 metres (41,000 ft) above MSL, about halfway through its Montreal to Edmonton flight. The flight crew was able to glide the aircraft safely to an emergency landing at an auto racing track that was previously RCAF Station Gimli, a Royal Canadian Air Force base in Gimli, Manitoba.

The subsequent investigation revealed a combination of company failures and a chain of human errors that defeated built-in safeguards. The amount of fuel that had been loaded was miscalculated because of a confusion as to the calculation of the weight of fuel using the metric system which had recently replaced the imperial system for use with the 767.

Again, more at the link.  For aviation fans, here’s a 30th anniversary retrospective video about the so-called “Gimli Glider”.

I’m glad to hear the most recent issue has been resolved without incident, but it highlights an ongoing problem.  If software is outsourced to and coded in nations with different cultures, what impact might those cultures have on consumers in the nation using the completed system?



  1. Weight and balance don't have any 'give' in them… The problem is getting the actual weights in the system. That's been an issue for years.

  2. Gimli base had an auto racing event going at the time, and lots of people on and surrounding both sides of the runway at the time of landing.

    All the people on the runway managed to flee, and the collapse of the nose-gear along with the guardrail down the centre allowed the pilot to keep the jet perfectly aligned by applying right brake lightly to keep the nose pressed tightly against the left side of the centre guardrail until they came to a stop.

    Because of the sparks from friction and collapsed landing gear, there was a fire, but as it was an active drag strip there was plenty of fire-fighting gear and personnel on hand.

  3. They also released a software update for planes flying in the United States. It adjusts the average weight of a child from 35 up to 82 kilo to avoid clashing with culture of eating 5 fast food meals per week.

  4. The worst one in my experience was loading a freighter with textiles out of Madras. They weighed the pallets then set them outside – in the rain. No rain the next day when we picked them up. LONG takeoff roll and that bad boy didn’t want to rotate. The fuel burn was absurd so diverted to Delhi and insisted all pallets be offloaded and re-weighed. That confirmed suspicions. Added one more line to the loadmaster check list in future …

  5. One of the common problems with testing out-sourced software is that culturally, the local testers are unwilling to offer anything other than positive results. This leads to the software having to be totally retested by the end-user, negating any supposed savings from using the original developers.

    I'm guessing this software was tested in the same geographic area as the software for the 737-Max.

  6. I was catching a military hop from an Air Force base out in California back to Georgia. There were multiple stops and a crew change for this 18 hour flight. We were in Texas where they added fuel. The take off took the entire runway and we were very slow to climb. I later found out the pilot order a 1000 more pounds of fuel and the ground crew added 1000 gallons of fuel putting the C-130 at its max weight.

    1. ouch, had heard a ‘milk and egg’ run in the 50’s in C54(?) from some where to Johnson someone had calc’d x gallons of milk as ‘water’ C54 was running on fumes when it landed and the pilots, flight engineer(crewchief I guess) and the loadmasters *NEVER* made that mistake again every thing got weighed after that including the 90/110lb WAC they occasionally had to haul around
      we won’t discuss how sharply that cut into booze smuggling on those flights 😎

  7. Working early development of the Ares 5 heavy launch vehicle the conceptual overall design used English for length and metric for diameter. Every time I pointed this out I was told that yes eventually we will have to fix that. Of course the "fix" was to cancel the program.

  8. I noticed that the article studiously avoiding naming the country where the programming was done. I'm going to guess India,as Boeing goes for more $9/hour programmers.

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