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In the Wake of Germanwings Crash, U.S. Regulators Seek Changes in How Airlines Vet Employees for Mental Illness

In response to the intentional downing of Germanwings Flight 9525 by suicidal co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, the U.S. government is poised to conduct a comprehensive reassessment of pilot medical rules. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has created a panel of both aviation industry and government experts to improve the way airlines vet employees for mental illness. Specifically, the panel will focus on how medical professionals should assess the psychological health of airline pilots.

Over the last 33 years, at least seven fatal plane crashes have been caused intentionally by airline pilots. This includes the Germanwings crash on March 24, which killed 150 people after Lubitz intentionally flew the airliner into a mountainside.

Thumbnail image for Airplane-cockpit-lighter.jpgTim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), told Bloomberg that his union supports the joint panel. According to Canoll, the panel will produce a "much better understanding" of whether changes need to be made to improve the evaluation process for pilot fitness-both physical and mental. In the past, similar panels have come up with progressive rule changes to pilot training requirements and fatigue standards.

What is the Current Standard for Evaluating U.S. Airline Pilots?

  • In order to ensure that they are fit to fly, the FAA currently requires airline pilots to have a medical check conducted by an FAA-approved doctor at least once a year. Once a pilot turns 40, the mandatory checks become more frequent-at least once every six months.
  • The elephant in the room here is that airline pilots are not required to pass any direct psychological screening. Instead, airline pilots have only to fill out a form that asks questions concerning their mental health and requires them to disclose any drugs they currently take, including medication used to treat depression.
  • To put this protocol into perspective, Andreas Lubitz passed the FAA's medical exam when he was in the U.S. years ago while training to become a pilot.

A New Approach

Effectively screening pilots who have the capacity to commit an atrocity like the Germanwings murder-suicide is an incredibly difficult task. Nonetheless, there are still a lot more measures that can be undertaken to not let another Lubitz slip through the cracks.

For example, FAA-certified doctors can and should ask pilots more questions directed at unraveling any issues like anxiety, depression or substance abuse-issues that can be a threat to the flying public. According to Philip Scarpa, a physician and former president of the Aerospace Medical Association, government regulation and airline policies should allow pilots to discuss these issues without compromising their jobs.

"The better we can standardize the approach on this the better we'll be," says Scarpa.

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