Three months after the mental health of the pilots of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet was seriously called into question, aviation security professionals have called for better assessment of flight crews.
At a conference at Heathrow, Philip Baum - editor of Aviation Security International - said that pilot suicide was only one of many possible causes of the loss of flight MH370 while on a routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. But the Dispax World conference was told of five suspected or confirmed cases of suicide by pilots of commercial aircraft in the past 20 years.
Mr Baum told The Independent that more attention must be paid to the behaviour of everyone on an aircraft: “Looking at people, how they behave on any particular day. It's not about their history, it's about how they are in the here-and-now. We can do it with airline employees, we can do it with airport workers, and we can do it with passengers.”
“We've got to be thinking about the mental health of the flight crew. In certain parts of the world there are cultural issues that come into play that make it difficult for junior crew, such as a first officer, to challenge senior officers such as the captain.”
Malcolm Cheshire, chief executive of the Thirdmargin consultancy, said more attention should be paid to “the intuition of colleagues, based upon gut feelings”.
“The cost of employing a team of mental health specialists to look at is negligible compared with the potential risk.”
An aviation medicine specialist, Professor Michael Bagshaw from King's College, said: “Pilot medicals should concentrate more on mental health.” He also said that not enough attention was paid to passengers' mental issues. One in 40 of the population is believed to have a profound fear of flying: “How many of those people have a latent psychotic illness and a fear of flying is enough to push it over?”
Bill Hagan, the British Airways captain involved in a flight-deck attack on a flight from Gatwick to Nairobi in which a Boeing 747 stalled twice, plunged thousands of feet and nearly crashed, said: “I firmly believe it was an attempted suicide by a paranoid schizophrenic.”
Mr Baum also raised the possibility that an intruder had managed to get in to the cockpit of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing: “We have seen that air crew can become extremely complacent, particularly with regard to the flight-deck door. The reality is that that door opens far too many times. So it is possible that someone gained access to the flight deck.”
Flight MH370 disappeared on 8 March with 239 passengers and crew aboard.