Korean Airlines (ICAO code: KAL, IATA code: KE) started in 1962 as an “intergovernmental enterprise” (Korean Air, n.d.). The airline was a shoot-off of the botched Korea National Airlines or KNA which was formed in 1948 (n.d.). But KAL failed again due to poor supervision. In March 1969, a private airline was formed- Korean Air. The privatized airline is what had become of the intergovernmental venture. Since its inception, KAL has grown 150 times. It has also passed the IATA Operational Safety Audit benchmark for global safety management. But like any other airlines, KAL has its share of mishaps. In the 90s, Korean Air was plagued with poor safety standing.
In the 90s, KAL had thee deadly accidents, including one which resulted in 228 deaths, putting a major dent on KAL’s reputation. Below is the summary of these fatal accidents.
6 Aug. 1997
Seoul-Gimpo (Kimpo) International Airport, South Korea
Guam-A.B. Won Pat International Airport, Guam
McDonnell Douglas MD-11
15 Apr 1999
Seoul-Gimpo (Kimpo) International Airport, South Korea
Boeing 747-2B5F (SCD)
22 Dec. 1999
London-Stansted Airport, United Kingdom
Milano-Malpensa Airport, Italy
Table 1. Summary of KAL accidents in the 1990s (Aviation-Safety.net, 2008)
The deadliest accident occurred on August 6, 1997. The ill-fated flight was bound South Korea- Guam (Aviation-Safety.net, 2008). The aircraft used was a Boeing 747-3B5, registration HL7468, flight number 801, C/n/msn 22487/605, cycles 8552, and engines 4 Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7R4G2 (2008). It had a total crew of 23, 22 of whom died, and 231 passengers, with 206 dead (2008). The plane was already near Guam-Agana International Airport when it had its accident.
According to the Aviation Safety database, the plane was performing a night-time approach to Guam runway 06L but due to the unavailability of the ILS glide slope system, the aircraft instead used a VOR/DME approach. The plane then fell 800 feet below the prescribed altitude hit the 709 Nimitz Hill at 650 feet before colliding into a jungle valley (Aviation Safety.net, 2008). The aircraft stopped at a height of 560 feet, 250 m from the UNZ VORTAC, which was on top of Nimitz Hill. Following the investigation, it was concluded that the software fix for the Minimum Safe Altitude Warning (MSAW) system of Agana Center Radar Approach Control (CERAP) did not function as expected (2008). The software fix was installed to solve the problems of high rates of false MSAW alarms at the airport. However, since KAL’s drop was below MDA, it was not identified at the Agana CERAP (2008).
Another cited probable cause of the accident was the flight captain’s failure to execute the VOR/DME approach and the first officer’s and flight engineer’s failure to monitor and double check the captain’s method (Aviation Safety.net, 2008). The captain’s exhaustion and insufficient flight crew training of Korean Air were also said to contribute to the fatal accident (1998).
Before Korean Air could recover from this accident, the airline got into another fatal accident nearly two years after.
On April 15, 1999, on a flight from China to South Korea, the aircraft suffered some cargo problems which resulted in the death of 8 individuals (Aviation Safety.net, 2008). The aircraft used was a McDonnell Douglas MD-11, with registration HL7373, C/n/msn 48409/490, engines 3 Pratt & Whitney PW4462 (2008). The aircraft was 10 km or 6.3 miles South West of Shanghai Hongqiao Airport in China (2008).
According to the Aviation Safety database, the aircraft, flight 8509, was loaded with 68 tons of cargo (Aviation Safety.net). Shanghai Tower cleared the flight for takeoff. Upon takeoff, the officer received the go signal from the Shanghai Departure to ascend to 1500 feet (2008). When the aircraft had reached 4500 feet, the captain received calls from the first officer informing him that the required altitude is 1500 feet, thereby making 4000 feet too high. The captain then rammed the control button, causing the aircraft to plummet down rapidly. The crew members tried to steer it but it was too late. The plane hurtled into an industrial development zone 6 miles southwest of Hongqiao airport (2008).
In 1999, KAL again encountered another fatal accident, killing 4 individuals. It happened on Dec. 22, 1999, on a United Kingdom- Italy flight (Aviation Safety.net, 2008). The aircraft used was a Boeing 747-2B5F, registration HL7451, c/n/msn 22480/448, and engines 4 Pratt & Whitney JT9D-7Q (2008). The accident occurred near Great Hallingbury in UK.
According to the Aviation Safety database, the aircraft arrived at Stansted following a flight from Tashkent. Before leaving the plane, the engineer logged on to Technical record averring that the captain’s ADI or Attitude Director Indicator was unreliable (Aviation Safety.net, 2008). Repair works were conducted during the turnover. Some of the cargo was unloaded and others were loaded in the flight to Milan. A new crew then boarded the plane. The plane was delayed after an hour. The aircraft was then cleared for take-off with a surface wine of 190deg/18 kt (2008). The Dover 6R Standard Instrument Departure buzzed for a climb ahead to 1.5 miles DME. Ascending 900 feet, the ADI comparator buzzed three times. Climbing trough 1400 feet, the crew was instructed to call London Control (2008). When the captain set off to turn left, the Comparator warning buzzed nine more times (2008). At this time, the maximum altitude was 2,543 feet amsl. The plane swerved to the left and plummeted until it reached the ground in roughly 40deg nose down pitch and 90deg bank to the left (2008).
Several factors were identified as to the cause of the accident:
1. Failure of the pilots to respond immediately to the comparator warning
2. . Failure of the handling pilot to correct the pitch attitude when he kept a left roll control input
3. Misdirection of the maintenance activity at Stansted
4. Ambiguity on the agreement for local engineering support of the Operator’s engineering personnel (Aviation Safety.net, 2008).
During the course of the investigation, several recommendations were laid out for KAL. Among the recommendations were updating Korean Air training and Flight Quality Assurance programs, appraising Korean Air policy and procedures for maintenance support especially as international destinations; ensuring that copies of the Technical Log and other pertinent transit certification documents are with the grounds of the point on departure; amending the ICAO Technical Instructions Part7, chapter 4.6.1 to include that the operator of aircraft which carries dangerous goods should inform the Authority in the State where the accident took place the compatibility group for Class 1 ; and appraisal of the methods of tracking air cargo as used by Korean Air (Aviation Safety.net, 2008.).
Following the accidents, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) downgraded Korea’s aviation safety to Category II (Korean Information Service, 2001). The downgrade also called for Korean Air to not use planes other than the ones they are flying and limits the airline’s code sharing with U.S. airlines. KAL was code-sharing with Delta Airline at the time of the Guam crash of 1999.
A Category II assessment is given to those who have not complied with the minimum international standards for aviation safety. While the rating does not affect current routes of the airline, it affects the carrier from taking flights to the United States.
FAA conducted its first safety evaluation of Korea’s air safety in May 2001 (Korean Information Service, 2001). The results showed that KAL’s effort in meeting the international standards in airline safety administration was futile (2001).
F.A.A. did a second evaluation in July, wherein it gave positive remarks to Korean government’s actions in reinforcing its safety measures (Korean Information Service, 2001).
Prior to this, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) conducted an assessment on Korean air safety administration and found that 28 areas needed to be improved (2001).
After F.A.A. issued the downgrade, the Republic of Korea’s government met to discuss the status of the domestic airline’s operations (Korean Information Safety, 2001). The Ministry of Construction and Transportation pledged to work to help upgrade the F.A.A. rating (2001)
KAL has since worked its way back to a Category 1 rating. In 2001, F.A.A. gave KAL a Category 1 rating four months after its downgrade (Shanghai Star, 2002).
Aviation Safety. Database. Retrieved February 26, 2008, from http:/aviation-safety.net
Korean Air. (n.d.). Company Info/History. Retrieved February 26, 2008, from
Korean Information Service (Aug. 21, 2001).Government’s Position on F.A.A’s
Aviation Safety Rating. Retrieved February 26, 2008, from
Shanghai Star (April 18, 2002). Safety Concerns Highlighted. Retrieved February 26,2008