Commercial pilots need mental health screenings

On March 24th, disaster struck when Germanwings Flight 9525 began an unexpected descent into the French Alps. The copilot of the flight, Andreas Lubitz, is believed to have intentionally crashed the plane, killing all 149 people on board. No specific motive has been found as of yet, but it is established that Lubitz had a mental disorder which he did not disclose to his employer. It appeared to his coworkers that he was in perfect condition to fly, but delving into his personal life has brought a different idea to the public eye. Authorities last week searched his apartment in Dusseldorf, Germany, finding torn doctor’s notes deeming him unfit to work the week of the crash. The employee is required to self-report instances such as this, but Lubitz ignored his doctor’s orders and did not divulge any problems to his employer.

Currently, when aspiring pilots are screened before being hired, the examiners do not probe into mental health issues. Pilots are also required to attend this intensive medical screening yearly until the age of 40, after which a physical is mandatory every six months. It is mainly a health examination, conducted by general practitioners and barely touching upon potential psychological issues.

Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist who works on threat assessments, has stated that the screening process for pilots “really falls short for people who are involved in the public’s safety.”

Most programs are based on an honor code system, where the responsibility lies in the employee to report any mental health problems. This may be an attempt at nobility for not generating a stigma around small mental health troubles such as depression, but in reality, it is unsafe to entrust the lives of innocent people to someone who may be psychologically unfit for such a job.

Aviation companies should require their employees to attend a mental health screening each year on the job and before anyone is hired. Regulations now allow some pilots to be on certain antidepressants, depending on the severity of their condition. These lighter rules were created to hopefully inspire pilots to seek treatment if they had mental predicaments. The crash last week shows that employers truly have no idea if their pilots are struggling with psychological issues. In the aviation industry, doctors are not required to report to their patient’s employer of an order not to work, which is a danger to public safety. It was just discovered that Lubitz had been treated for suicidal tendencies for years before he was certified as a pilot. There is no evidence confirming he still was suffering from these problems, but if Lubitz was seeking a death wish, he did not have to take a plane of innocent people down with him. An annual mental health examination for commercial pilots might prevent such terrible events from happening in the future.

In a study published by the Aerospace Medical Association over the span of 20 years, five out of eight general aviation aircraft crash cases in the United States were caused by premeditated suicidal actions. Although this differs from the commercial industry, it supports the concept that psychological testing should be implemented for the aviation industry, especially the commercial sector. Since the crash, many countries have established guidelines that require two people to be in the cockpit at all times. However, this is is not the heart of the issue – airlines should be quick to verify that all pilots are qualified to fly before they even have the job.

In today’s society, personal privacy laws prevent doctors from reporting ailments they treat to their patients’ employers. However, legislation to protect public safety should overpower personal privacy in mass transportation industries. The tragedy and randomness of last week’s plane crash substantiates that psychological health of employees needs to be examined and monitored when innocent peoples’ lives are on the line.

 

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