Airline pilots not rigorously monitored for mental and emotional fitness to fly

Crew expected to turn in troubled colleagues

November 21, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Several days a week, Brad Bartholomew climbs into the cockpit of a Southwest Airlines jetliner and begins his safety routine. He checks the instrument panel, radios the control tower, gets the latest update on the weather.

And in perhaps the most important safety check of all, Bartholomew looks over at the co-pilot who will fly alongside him. That look -- a brief, imperfect observational moment -- along with whatever knowledge he may have of his colleague, is the best assurance he will get that the person flying next to him is fit enough to help carry scores of people through the skies.

"If either one of us senses a problem with the other," said Bartholomew, who has flown for Southwest for 12 years, "we're probably going to take action."

The airline industry, which employs tens of thousands of pilots flying millions of people around the globe, has long relied on a system of internal monitoring when it comes to the question of pilot fitness. Pilots like Bartholomew are honor bound to report any concerns about their colleagues; the pilots' union has a panel of volunteers who can provide professional help for troubled pilots; and the airlines have generally been good about allowing pilots at risk to take time off.

But for years, critics have maintained that the industry needed to impose a more rigorous and systematic program for ensuring the mental fitness of pilots. Critics say only about half of U.S. and foreign airlines give psychological tests before hiring pilots; after that, pilots are typically subjected only to physicals once or twice a year, during which they are asked about their emotional well-being.

Concerns about the risks posed by disturbed pilots are not likely to be eased in the aftermath of the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 on Oct. 31, when all 217 people aboard were killed. While investigators have cautioned that they have reached no conclusions about what caused the disaster, government officials said last week that, based on the evidence they have, they believe the plane was brought down by one of the pilots who for unknown reasons sent the aircraft into a fatal plunge from 33,000 feet over the Atlantic.

If those suspicions prove correct, it would be the fourth time investigators have concluded that a commercial plane had been intentionally crashed by one of its pilots. None of of those crashes have involved U.S airlines.

To many pilots, the small number of such horrific incidents underscores a fact that even the industry's critics concede: Pilots are among the healthiest and most proficient groups of workers in America.

"We all come from the same breeding stock, and it's a really small network," said Bartholomew, the Southwest Airlines pilot who also publishes a newsletter on airline labor issues. "With a half-dozen phone calls, you can really find out a lot about people you want to hire."

People in the airline industry maintain that it would be virtually impossible to devise a foolproof program for preventing aberrational behavior.

Still, the industry's critics say that much could be done to limit risk. At the moment, federal and international rules demand that commercial pilots undergo physical examinations at least once a year -- and in the case of captains of U.S. airliners, twice.

Dr. Robert Pressman, a clinical psychologist with Strategic Outcomes, a Providence, R.I., company that specializes in selecting personnel for sensitive jobs, calls that "a pretty inefficient way of getting at some of the deeper issues."

Some types of psychological tests have a strong record of detecting signs of depression or agitation that could pose safety problems, Pressman said. He and other experts contend that the Federal Aviation Administration should require pilots to take such tests every six months.

Industry and union officials counter that these kinds of safety problems are rare, and they question whether more testing is worth the time and cost.

Before the EgyptAir accident brought new attention to screening issues, pilot unions had begun pushing to relax longtime safety rules that bar pilots from taking most anti-depressant medications.

Admitting depression often forces pilots to be grounded. Some psychologists complain that the rules have prompted pilots to try to hide their problems, adding to the potential hazards.

FAA records show that in 1998, 633 people were denied the medical approvals needed for licenses as commercial airline and cargo plane captains because of neurological or psychological problems that ranged from excessive anxiety to a history of alcohol abuse. That was up from 438 denials in 1997.

FAA officials said the number of rejections was minuscule compared to the nearly 135,000 people who renewed or received their licenses in 1998.

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