Asiana pilot names: KTVU apologizes for racist prank, but lawsuit possible

Asiana pilot names were wrong and racist, KTVU apologizes. But amid an already controversial investigation into the Asiana Flight 214 crash, the airline threatens legal action.

Jeff Chiu/AP
The tail of Asiana Flight 214, which crashed earlier this month, is seen as two men walk under a wing at San Francisco International Airport Friday. Investigators have said the plane came in too low and slow.

Both the National Transportation Safety Board and KTVU-TV of Oakland, Calif., have apologized for a mistake that led the television station to broadcast incorrect – and racially insensitive – names of the pilots of Asiana Flight 214, which crashed at San Francisco airport July 6, killing three. But the airline is considering legal action against the two organizations, CNN reports.

KTVU on Friday reported what it thought were the names of the Asiana pilots, but the names were clearly fabrications intended as crude phonetic jokes. One of the pilot names reported by KTVU, for instance, was "Wi Tu Lo."

KTVU officials have said that they did not sound out the names before airing the report, nor did they carry out adequate fact-checking. While KTVU called the NTSB to confirm the names, it managed only to reach a summer intern, who falsely affirmed the veracity of the report, both KTVU and the NTSB say. It remains unclear how KTVU got the list of fake names or why the NTSB intern confirmed the names as true.

The report was so offensive that Asiana might have weighed legal action regardless. "The reputation of the four pilots and of the company had been seriously damaged by this report," the airline said in a statement. "The company is reviewing taking legal action against both KTVU-TV and the NTSB."

Yet the controversy also comes amid an investigation that has already angered some in the aviation community. The NTSB, which is typically circumspect in its investigations, releasing information slowly and over months, has provided an unprecedented volume of crucial information to the public in the past week.

The NTSB says its hand has been forced somewhat by the Internet age, where misinformation and conspiracy theories can spread widely and quickly when official information is not forthcoming. But pilots and some aviation experts have worried that the information is leading the public to jump to wrong conclusions, unnecessarily ramping up pressure on the South Korea-based airline and its pilots.

“It is imperative that safety investigators refrain from prematurely releasing the information from on-board recording devices,” said the Air Line Pilots Association in a statement. “We have seen in the past that publicizing this data before all of it can be collected and analyzed leads to erroneous conclusions that can actually interfere with the investigative process.”

The Asiana pilots have already come in for scrutiny after the accident, in which a Boeing 777 clipped a sea wall on landing in San Francisco, lost its tail, and then spun across the runway where it caught fire.

The pilot at the controls during the landing had only 43 hours of experience on 777s, though he had more than 10,000 hours total flight experience, according to an earlier CNN report. While the pilot was legally qualified to fly the plane, he was trying to build up additional hours of 777 cockpit time to "gain comfort at the controls and experience flying the plane under certain conditions," former Department of Transportation Inspector General Mary Schiavo told CNN.

Though the NTSB does not release pilots' names during investigations, the pilot's real name has been reported as Lee Kang-kuk.

Asian-American groups said the prank was deeply troubling. "Words cannot adequately express the outrage we … feel over KTVU's on-air blunder that made a mockery of the Asiana Airlines tragedy," wrote Asian American Journalists Association President Paul Cheung and MediaWatch Chair Bobby Caina Calvan, according to the Los Angeles Times. "We are embarrassed for the anchor, who was as much a victim as KTVU's viewers and KTVU's hard-working staff."

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