Psychologists Should Play More Active Role in Keeping Airways Safe

Are the Airways Safe?

The safety of the airways has been called into question by the tragic crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 last week, when the co-pilot of an international passenger flight intentionally locked the plane into a deadly descent into the French alps, killing 150 people.

Although co-pilot Andreas Lubitz struggled with mental illness, had documented suicidal tendencies, was on medication for depression and suffered from narcissism, his employers seem to have been unaware of his condition.

The tragic episode may point to the need for psychologists to be more involved in routinely evaluating the mental health of airline pilots.

Should Pilots Undergo Psychological Testing?

Many airline companies do not routinely evaluate the psychological health of their pilots. Last Thursday the Boston Globe reported that “The chief executive of Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings, said the airline’s pilots undergo yearly medical exams that do not include psychological tests.” [Emphasis mine]

The Globe went on to quote David Hale, the director of the Oklahoma -based Pilot Medical Solutions, who said that the process of screening airline pilots for mental illness is “not very extensive.” He continued: “People are asked to self-report, but there really isn’t more screening than that.”

A report from the Guardian last Friday confirms that psychological screening for airplane pilots is minimal in most countries:

…in most countries, the only psychological element required by the Civil Aviation Authority is an interview in which pilots are asked “general questions” about their mood, family relations, sleep patterns and alcohol use, and whether they have suffered any recent episodes of depression or suicidal feelings.

America’s Federal Aviation Authority requires pilots to disclose any mental disorders along with other health issues during their annual or biannual medical (aircrew aged over 40 undergo the exam twice a year; under 40s once), and the doctor conducting the examination can order formal psychological testing if he or she thinks it necessary.

It is unclear how the current system, which relies heavily on the self-reporting of pilots, would be able to screen out mentally unstable persons determined to lie about their condition. Although there is a rigorous battery of neuro-psychological tests for reintegrating pilots into work following sick-leave for depression, the routine evaluation of active pilots focuses more on physical health rather than psychological and mental health. As Alex Davies recently explained in Wired Magazine,

In the US, airlines subject pilots to physical examinations and background checks when they are hired, and the FAA requires annual medical certifications. But those focus on physical issues, not mental. “There’s no formal psychological testing that is done routinely.” says Dr. James Vanderploeg, who performs FAA examinations as part of his practice.

It may be time for psychologists to play a more active role in partnering with the aviation industry to keep our airways safe.

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