Last March, 150 airline passengers lost their lives at the hands of a mentally unstable copilot. How can we prevent such a tragedy from recurring?
June 24, 2015
Earlier this year, the world was stunned when a Germanwings plane crashed into a French mountainside. All 150 people on board perished. Next came the horrific discovery that copilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately downed the plane in a murder-suicide plot.
The Germanwings crash is not the first time something like this has happened. Since 1982, intentional pilot behavior has caused at least seven fatal crashes and one nonfatal accident. It is possible that other unsolved crashes – such as the Malaysia Airlines Flight that seemingly disappeared into thin air – involved deliberate pilot interference.
The unthinkable scale of the Germanwings tragedy has spurred a growing concern about mental health screening for commercial pilots. Every nation recognizes that pilots must meet certain physical requirements to be considered fit to fly. Yet the requirements for mental stability are far less robust.
In the United States, for example, pilots must pass rigorous physical screenings every 6 to 12 months, depending on their age. The screening involves only a cursory questionnaire about mental health and psychiatric medications. Currently, U.S. pilots do not undergo any in-depth psychological screening.
Identifying and addressing mental health issues among pilots may go a long way toward preventing commercial airplane crashes.
The balance between keeping passengers safe and protecting pilots’ privacy
The Germanwings crash vividly illustrates the conflict between passenger safety and medical privacy. Lubitz had a long history of mental health problems. He had seen 41 different doctors over the past five years. In the weeks leading up to the crash, Lubitz had multiple appointments with psychiatrists, doubled his dose of antidepressants and took eight sick days. According to French prosecutors, several of the psychiatrists he met with believed he was mentally unstable and unfit to fly. However, due to strict privacy laws, their hands were tied.
German privacy laws are designed to encourage pilots to seek medical attention without fear of jeopardizing their careers. Yet, in the wake of the Germanwings crash, it has become apparent that sound mental health is just as critical a qualification as physical health for pilots entrusted with the lives of their passengers.
Change may be on the horizon
In the United States, regulators have begun to explore more intensive screening measures for preventing tragedies like this from ever happening again. Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) assembled a panel to conduct a comprehensive review of safety measures in the industry. The panel will address how to more effectively evaluate pilots’ fitness to fly. It will make recommendations on how to better assess their mental and emotional health. It will also offer guidance on screening airline mechanics, flight attendants, safety inspectors and other personnel.
Improved screening measures are not the only topic up for review. The FAA panel will also examine potential changes in aircraft design, cockpit regulations and pilot training.
There is no simple solution to preventing a tragedy like the Germanwings crash. However, changes in the industry as a whole may reduce the likelihood of needless loss of life due to preventable crashes.