As more revelations come to light regarding the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525, much of the focus as turned to the co-pilot’s alleged mental health issues. In this specific case, the pilot had told his employers several years ago about issues with depression and possibly even suicidal thoughts. But mental illness of that type is hardly rare and increased focus is being put on whether or not it is sufficient to have pilots self report their medical situation, particularly when it comes to mental health. This isn’t anything new and it applies to industries across the board. The airlines have been doing this for generations.
Airlines largely rely on self-monitoring when tracking the mental health of pilots. Each country’s civil aviation authority has its own rules for health screenings, according to Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Alison Duquette.
The International Civil Aviation Organization health-screening process largely mimics the FAA’s regulations, according to Greg Raiff, the CEO of Private Jet Services, a private aviation company. Lufthansa flights would have been flying under those guidelines, Raiff said.
Erin Bowen, chairwoman of the department of behavioral and safety sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., said doctors ask pilots about stress and how they are feeling during routine medical examinations every six months or a year.
But she said the tests aren’t sophisticated enough to give doctors the confidence to prevent someone from flying.
I can start this discussion with what should be some of the easiest questions imaginable. Do you want a crazy, suicidal or even depressed person flying the aircraft that you’re seated in? Obviously not. So, having set up the problem, let’s pause to consider how you want to deal with the solution. The current system relies on the pilots reporting in to their management if they have any such issues or, in come cases, having their colleagues report them if they notice anything out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, it becomes immediately apparent that this isn’t a terribly effective system. There is a huge disincentive for someone dealing with depression to report themselves as it’s almost a sure ticket to being grounded if not unemployed. Likewise, relying on the pilot in the other seat to turn them in relies on a person who almost certainly has no professional training in diagnosing such illnesses combined with a likely reluctance to “out” one of their coworkers over something which may turn out to be nothing more than a guy having a bad day.
So what would be more effective? Obviously it would be something significantly more intrusive, such as having the employer mandate rigorous, frequent testing for mental health issues. But two issues seem to arise with that. First, people suffering from depression – even to the point of being suicidal – can be notoriously hard to spot if they are trying to hide or deny their problems, even for experienced professionals. Second, the vast majority of people who are suffering from some degree of depression – even to the point of contemplating suicide – only go all the way to such a tragic conclusion in a tiny percentage of cases.
That second point raises complicated issues of just how many babies you want to throw out with the bath water when it comes to airline pilots and depression. Is any level of depression or anxiety sufficient to disqualify a person from their job even if the odds are massively on the side of nothing like the Flight 9525 disaster ever happening? If our answer to that question is yes, it may relate to our previous discussion about how fascinated we are with plane crashes.
If we are to assume that all human life carries the same intrinsic value and we’re willing to place that level of restrictions on prospective pilots, how can we issue drivers licenses to anyone without the same level of scrutiny? You won’t kill as many people by intentionally crashing your car, but all the people involved will be just as dead. This may sound like a somewhat fatuous argument, but the principle is actually the same. If the employer won’t mandate the most stringent level of mental health testing on the pilots, the government will have to step in and mandate it. If you were interested in having the same level of security for drivers, the government is once again your only avenue to a remedy.
Now, just to make the conversation as sweeping as possible, consider gun laws such as the one in New York where people who are not even doctors can report someone for suspected mental issues and have their permit revoked. I only bring that last bit up to add some perspective. How far do you want the government intruding on your private medical information and what power do you wish to delegate to them when they have the results in hand?
This is obviously too complicated of an issue to simply toss out an answer for you. I raise the question for your own debate and discussion. And when we’re done batting that around, perhaps we can take a fresh look at how much screening we want to mandate for pilots.