U.S. Boosts Training to Identify Airline Pilots’ Mental Health Issues

By Alan Levin | June 14, 2016

U.S. regulators have increased training for the doctors who screen airline pilots so they can better spot mental health issues in the wake of last year’s suicide that killed 150 people on a Germanwings flight deliberately crashed in the French Alps.

The Federal Aviation Administration is also requiring airlines and pilot unions to expand programs that encourage employees to come forward to report mental illnesses and allow them to receive treatment, agency Administrator Michael Huerta said at a briefing in Washington on Thursday.

“We have to do more to reduce the stigma that surrounds mental illness,” Huerta said.

While the FAA, airlines and unions have agreed to several measures addressing the issue, they also said there aren’t effective ways to screen for the rare outliers in the cockpit who have become so unhinged that they’ve taken down planes and killed all aboard. No new psychological screening of pilots will be required because an advisory group of industry officials and medical experts appointed by the FAA concluded that such exams wouldn’t work.

The advisory panel was convened to study what could be done to address an issue that has led to multiple catastrophic crashes at a time when most other causes of aviation accidents have almost been wiped out.

Airliners Downed

Since 2013, at least two airliners have been downed by pilots and investigators suspect a third, Malaysia Air Flight 370 in 2014, was intentionally flown to the southern Indian Ocean in 2014 where it disappeared. There were 422 people killed in the three cases.

France’s accident investigation agency, the Bureau of Investigations and Analysis or BEA, concluded that a co-pilot deliberately crashed the Germanwings plane into a mountainside on March 24, 2015. Earlier this year, the agency urged regulators to re-examine how pilot health is monitored and assessed.

The BEA also said pilots should lose privacy protection of their health records. Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz, who locked his captain out of the cockpit before programming the plane to descend, had been diagnosed with psychotic depression and was recommended for psychiatric hospital treatment two weeks before the doomed flight, according to the BEA. Doctors in Germany aren’t allowed to reveal such information to an employer and Lubitz never disclosed it.

Medical Exams

Airline pilots in the U.S. currently must receive a medical check by an FAA-approved physician at least once a year to ensure they are fit to fly. Once they reach age 40, the check occurs every six months, according to the agency.

There’s no specific psychological screening for U.S. pilots, though they must answer a questionnaire that includes mental-health issues and they have to disclose drugs they are taking, including medications for depression.

The Aerospace Medical Association, which does scientific research into the fitness and safety of pilots and astronauts, has in the past suggested that FAA-approved doctors ask more questions designed to reveal mental health status. The association’s work was prompted by a JetBlue Airways Corp. captain who had a psychological breakdown on a 2012 flight and was locked out of the cockpit.

Still, such screening shouldn’t be expected to predict the most extreme cases when pilots intend to commit suicide and kill passengers, Philip Scarpa, a physician and former president of the association, said in an interview last year.

Coming Forward

Better screening would still have value because too many airline pilots suffer from depression, anxiety or substance abuse issues that can threaten safety, Scarpa said. Regulations and airline policies should also be tailored so that pilots could reveal these issues and receive treatment without jeopardizing their careers, he said; That would help induce more pilots to come forward.

While most U.S. airlines have programs encouraging pilots to voluntarily reveal health issues or to anonymously disclose concerns related to other employees, the FAA panel found only a handful of carriers had programs specifically tailored to mental illness, said Joe DePete, the Air Line Pilots Association’s representative on the advisory panel. Such programs will now be required under FAA safety oversight.

Reporting Without Fear

Just as pilots are now encouraged to report safety issues without fear of reprisal, the new programs are designed to encourage flight crews to come forward with concerns before they escalate into a risk to passengers, Paul Morell, American Airlines’ vice president for safety, security and regulatory compliance, said at the briefing.

“We welcome ideas aimed at advancing the safety of the industry and look forward to any opportunities to collaborate with the FAA,” Southwest Airlines spokesman Bob Hughes said in an e-mail.

The U.S. American Medical Association is currently debating whether to urge U.S. lawmakers to require that physicians who examine pilots report suspicions of mental health issues to airlines or the FAA, according to Michael Barry, a doctor who heads the agency’s medical division.

There have been seven intentional fatal airline crashes linked to mental health since 1982, according to investigators. While none have occurred on U.S. airlines, there was the 2012 JetBlue incident and a 1994 case in which a FedEx Corp. pilot attacked fellow pilots during a flight before being subdued. The total doesn’t include the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by terrorists on targets in the U.S.

The U.S. has had a policy requiring at least two airline employees in the cockpit at all times. If a pilot needs to use the restroom, a flight attendant or another pilot must stay in the cockpit during the break. While that rule was not in place in Europe at the time of the Germanwings crash, most nations have since adopted it.

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