Airlines Struggle to Identify Pilots with Mental Health Conditions

By Siva Govindasamy and Swati Pandey | March 30, 2015

As investigators try to find out why a young German pilot deliberately crashed a passenger jet into the French Alps on Tuesday, pilots and psychologists warn it may be impossible to prevent similar incidents in the future.

All 150 people on board Germanwings flight 4U9525 died after 27-year-old first officer Andreas Lubitz locked the cockpit door, took control of the Airbus A320 plane and veered it down from cruising altitude at 3,000 feet per minute.

German tabloid Bild reported on Friday that Lubitz received psychiatric treatment for a “serious depressive episode” six years ago, and the crash has prompted calls for more rigorous mental health and stress tests for pilots.

German prosecutors said on Friday documents seized at Lubitz’s homes indicated that he had an existing medical condition and that he hid it from employers.

They said they had found recently-dated torn-up sick notes saying that Lubitz was unable to work.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which sets global aviation standards, recommends that someone with depression should not fly a plane. But its Manual of Civil Aviation Medicine also states that psychological tests of aircrew are “rarely of value” and not “reliable” in predicting mental disorders.

Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr said Lubitz had passed suitability tests after the break in his training six years ago and was classed as 100 percent fit to fly. He also described the crash as a one-time event and said that there were no fail-proof systems to prevent such an accident.

Asian airlines including Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Qantas Airways and Singapore Airlines say potential pilots must undergo a rigorous medical that includes a psychological test. Pilots must then pass a medical check-up, which includes some psychological tests, at least once a year.

British Pilots’ Association BALPA says statutory simulator testing every 6-12 months can also highlight any areas of mental health concern.

Many airlines also provide access to confidential counseling services.

But none of these measures will catch every unwell employee, analysts and pilots say.

“If you’re harboring feelings of disphoria, poor concentration, suicide or debility, unless your family or colleague discloses that to an administrator or to a chief pilot or a director of flight ops, these cases can slip through,” said Randy Knipping, who specializes in aviation medicine.

Toronto-based Knipping was speaking ahead of the latest information from German prosecutors.

Telling Tales

Pilots themselves say they are also encouraged to declare any psychological problems – whether relating to their own health or that of their colleagues, should they spot potential issues.

But it’s a delicate matter that many shy away from.

“Do you want to work in an office where your colleagues are snitching on you? That’s why this happens so rarely,” said an A320 captain with an Asian carrier.

“Everyone has problems and some deal with it better than others. Not everyone will deal with it by crashing a plane. That’s an extreme reaction and nobody can predict it.”

Another experienced captain with an Asian airline added: “They ask about your mental health, about events that could affect you psychologically. But who willingly admits to anything that could lead to a suspension of their license? I won’t. I need my job.”

David Powell, an aviation medicine specialist in New Zealand, said an ICAO study of 20 years of global incidents had revealed only 10 air crashes involved medical issues.

“Pilots are a highly screened population and highly scrutinized, but who can totally predict the behavior of human beings?” he said.

Lufthansa announced on Friday that it would create a new group-wide role of safety pilot, who would report to the chief executive officer.

It also fell into line with several other airlines that have introduced rules this week insisting a second crew member be in the cockpit at all times – a measure that is already compulsory in the United States.

Tony Catanese, a clinical psychologist at specialist clinic Glen Iris Psychology in Melbourne, commented: “Never leave a person alone – that’s probably the most effective suicide prevention technique there is.”

(Additional reporting by Clare Baldwin in Hong Kong, Naomi Tajitsu in Wellington, Jeffrey Dastin in New York, David Morgan in Washington, Victoria Bryan and Caroline Copley in Berlin, Sarah Young in London; Editing by Ian Geoghegan and Sophie Walker)

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