Investigators’ focus on the role of pilots on the missing Malaysian jetliner casts a spotlight on how commercial aviators are screened for mental health.
Malaysian Airline System Bhd. gives psychological tests, a common industry practice in Asia, where two of five carriers with in-flight suicides since 1982 are based. In the U.S. and Europe, with no cases in that span, regulators don’t mandate recurring psychological exams and depend on pilots to disclose past or current issues and medications during physical checkups.
The divergent approaches are being exposed as authorities study the behavior of the Malaysian Air cockpit crew, pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah and co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, for clues about their mental state, including whether suicide may be to blame for the March 8 disappearance of Flight 370.
“You will find some of the Eastern European and Asian countries have more requirements than the Western countries have,” said Ian Cheng, a Sydney-based physician and president of the Australasian Society of Aerospace Medicine. “More stringent doesn’t necessarily mean better, but it’s their cultural background and the way they perceive things.”
Americans involved in training pilots say extensive psychological tests aren’t necessary in the world’s largest aviation market because U.S. airlines tend to hire accomplished military pilots or civilians with thousands of hours of experience who have proved their mettle in commuter planes. Lengthy flight experience weeds out potentially unstable recruits before they reach a jetliner cockpit, they say.
“It’s very intense to go through all of that training to get those high-level qualifications,” said Ken Byrnes, chairman of the flight training department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. “If there are any issues, they would crop up.”
Like the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, the European Aviation Safety Authority doesn’t require routine mental-fitness tests. Such assessments can be ordered if examiners find cause for concern during periodic physicals that include a discussion of mental wellbeing, according to the agencies’ guidelines.
The United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization says psychological testing of aircrew members is rarely of value as a screening tool before a pilot is hired, according to the agency’s Manual of Civil Aviation Medicine.
“Personality tests alone have not been proven to be reliable tools to predict mental disorders or to assess with any degree of certainty an applicant’s suitability for an aviation career,” the manual says.
ICAO, which recommends annual physicals for pilots through age 40 and semiannual checks for those older, suggests as many as six questions to help certified aviation physicians uncover issues such as depression, anxiety and alcohol or drug use.
Airlines outside the U.S., facing the financial burden of paying for a new hire’s training, want to “give them a battery of aptitude tests and psychological testing to see if they want to make the investment in that individual,” said Byrnes of Embry-Riddle.
South Korea and Singapore require personality assessments when a pilot is hired. South Korean carriers use a 350-question personality review and “continuously” assess pilots individually and in groups, with reviews extending to family members, said Kwon Yong Bok, director general of the Aviation Safety Policy Office Of Civil Aviation.
Asiana Airlines Inc., South Korea’s second-biggest carrier, makes personality assessments on pilots and cabin crew each year when they take annual physical checkups, said Lee Hyo Min, a spokeswoman. Crew members must answer a list of government-required questions, she said.
Malaysian Air may change its required psychological examinations for pilots following Flight 370’s disappearance, Chief Executive Officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said on March 17.
“Going forward, we will look into all this and see whether we can strengthen, tighten all the various entry requirements and examinations,” he said.
Investigators have cautioned that it’s too early to draw any conclusions about the cause of Flight 370’s disappearance and the behavior of the pilots. Malaysian authorities say a possible pilot suicide is only one of many scenarios under study.
“This is so strange. Nothing fits. Nothing can be ruled out at this time before the flight data recorder is recovered,” said Guohua Li, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention in New York.
AviationSafetyNetwork, which tracks accident data, has identified five crashes killing 422 people since 1982 that were caused by intentional actions by airline pilots. Those cases involved EgyptAir Airlines Co., SilkAir Singapore Pte., Royal Air Maroc, Japan Airlines Co. and LAM Mozambique Airlines.
Most pilot suicides occur in general aviation, where planes are small and more accessible and regulations less extensive, according to Jurek Grabowski, who was part of a suicide-by-aircraft study at Johns Hopkins University in 2005.
A potential shortfall of the self-disclosure system is that pilots can lie about any mental-health issues.
“If they don’t want to tell you, they won’t tell you,” said Cheng, the Sydney physician. “When they present for a medical, their goal is to pass the medical.”
Pilots who prevaricate can risk fines and the loss of required medical certification.
Airlines can supplement required physical assessments with their own evaluations or tests. United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL:US), the world’s second-largest carrier by passenger traffic, has pilot applicants take a personality evaluation, said Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman. She declined to comment further.
Southwest Airlines Co. (LUV:US), the largest discount carrier, uses an aircraft cockpit trainer exercise to observe an applicant’s decision-making and problem-solving skills in a stressful environment.
The continual scrutiny in which pilots operate still may not turn up evidence of troubling behavior until it bursts into the open. In 2012, a JetBlue Airways Corp. (JBLU:US) captain was locked out of the flight deck and subdued by passengers after pounding on the cockpit door, shouting and praying aloud. He was later found not guilty by reason of insanity of interfering with his flight crew. At the time of the incident, his duties included instructing, evaluating and mentoring other pilots.
Deutsche Lufthansa AG, Europe’s second-largest airline, runs an in-house pilot-training academy with 120 slots each year, for which it gets about 3,000 applications. Successful graduates undergo a formal physical examination, as well as behavior-oriented personality assessments monitored by psychologists and flight captains.
To promote disclosure and reduce stigma around mental health, Australia allows pilots to continue flying if they are on antidepressants and meet certain criteria, whereas most other regulatory authorities ground them until they’re better, said Gordon Cable, who provides aviation medical services and conducts pilot medical exams in Adelaide, South Australia.
Stigma will drive anyone to hide the signs and symptoms of mental illness, “but pilots particularly, because they would be afraid of being grounded,” Cable said. “They have their job at stake.”
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