Mental fitness of crew is not rigorously tested by airlines

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The Independent Online
WHILE PILOTS worldwide have long been obliged to undergo rigorous and frequent medical checks to ensure their physical fitness for flying, provisions to screen them for mental problems are much more haphazard. Findings from the EgyptAir crash investigation may increase pressure on airlines to fill this apparent hole.

It would, however, be a challenge. While concealing physical ailments from a doctor is a virtual impossibility - you cannot feign good eyesight - it is much less difficult to hide mental and personal problems, ranging from depression to habitual drinking or drug taking. Pilots will always have a strong incentive to hide any problems if they know that to reveal them could cost them their licence.

US carriers do attempt some kind of psychological assessment of pilots when they hire them. There is no follow-up to these tests however. Even so, airlines say that when pilots undergo their six-monthly medical checks - the minimum standard for most of the rest of the world is yearly - the doctors are trained to watch for any signs of mental stress or imbalance.

But the case of a 1997 crash in Indonesia of a SilkAir Boeing 737 illustrates how such medical checks offer little guarantee that stress will be exposed. Investigators now believe that the plane was brought down by its pilot, Tsu Way Ming, in an act of suicide. Mr Tsu, according to the Thai-owned SilkAir, had undergone regular checks.

But if the pilots rarely own up to mental problems, the people around them sometimes do it for them. US carriers admit that when pilots are grounded for such problems as alcohol abuse, they have often been turned in by spouses.Some US airlines and the Federal Aviation Authority offer confidential tip-off hotlines.

Carriers also watch how pilots interact in the cockpit. American Airlines allows pilots to enter complaints about colleagues into a computer. They can request not to be assigned to fly with individuals whom they do not get on with or do not trust. Any pilot attracting a high number of such messages is automatically brought in for evaluation by management.

Even if a better model for screening the mental health of cockpit crews were to be designed, actually putting it in place would be difficult.