Pilots and Mental Health: How Airlines Can Help Prevent Future Airplane Crashes

In 2015, The German A320 Airbus flight 4U 9525 from Barcelona to Dusseldorf was brought down in the French Alps by co-pilot Andreas Lubitz who “voluntarily allowed the aircraft to lose altitude,” ending the lives of all 150 passengers on board. As investigators recovered the black box flight data and cockpit voice recorders, evidence revealed that Lubitz purposely used controls to speed up the planes descent while keeping the captain locked out of the cabin. Investigators also discovered that Lubitz
had battled depression years before taking engineer control of the Germanwings airplane, revealing his unfit mental state. Airlines have background checks and other safeguard procedures throughout the hiring process, but experts say there is little they can do to stop a suicidal pilot if he or she is left alone at the controls.

According to The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), airlines in the U.S. require flight attendants to remain in the cockpit with the pilot if the other pilot leaves briefly for food or the lavatory. Protocol for this is in place the moment the crew member gets to the cockpit door where the flight attendant enters first leaving the pilot to exit out, making this a coordinated exit. The door is then shut and locked while the flight attendant waits with the other pilot for the crew member to return. Before the Flight 9525 tragedy, there were no requirements in Europe for two crew members to be in the cockpit at all times. Following the crash, Norwegian Airlines became swift to adhere to those guidelines making it crucial for two qualified crew members to remain in the cockpit.

In addition to these procedures, there are screening processes that take place requiring airline pilots to undergo a physical and mental examination with an approved physician every six months (for those over 40) or once a year (for those under 40) in order to be recertified to fly a passenger plane. If pilots fail to disclose or falsify their unfitness for duty related to their physical or psychological state, or fail to disclose any medication use during this time, they can face fines of up to $250,000. Other screenings include fingerprinting and criminal history checks by the airlines that employ these pilots to further vet their trustworthiness and suitability for the job. The FAA also requires 40 hours of flight training during which pilots are educated on and experience the occurrence of a crash in order to be able to control the plane in a sudden situation.

The FAA continues to closely examine the psychological screening of pilots for continuous improvements in aviation safety. They also exercise random Department of Transportation drug and alcohol screenings to identify pilots who may have substance abuse issues. Further, the Civil Aeromedical Institute and the FAA have made it imperative to promote strong mental health in pilots. To further ensure passenger safety, airline crew members are also encouraged to have open and honest discourse with and among aviation professionals in addition to communication training regarding the wellbeing of fellow crew members.

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