With all the airline safety and security protocols implemented in the U.S. over the past several years, the JetBlue pilot incident that resulted in the emergency landing of flight 191 on Tuesday, March 27, calls into question the current practice of airline-pilot medical checkups and asks: are they 100%?
Today, U.S. aviation regulations largely depend on airline pilots to report mental health diagnoses and/or treatments after they receive periodic medical screenings, which may be required as often as once every 6 months. However, according to Dr. Richard Jennings, a faculty member of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, it is still fairly easy for pilots such as Clayton Osbon of JetBlue Airways flight 191–whose erratic behavior prompted Osbon’s co-pilot to lock him of the cockpit and several passengers to restrain him–to hide mental problems.
“To a large degree, the aviation medical examiner has to depend on the honesty of the aviator,” said Jennings, who is authorized to perform pilot exams by the Federal Aviation Administration. “It’s just a snapshot.”
This dependency on pilot disclosure is due to the limitations of current airline-pilot medical evaluation practices, which consists of agency-approved medical experts questioning pilots about their mental condition. In the case that a pilot reports any concerning problems/issues or exhibits unusual behavior, then experts may also request a more extensive psychological exam.
Although examination forms issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) clearly state that pilots must reveal medication usage and any sort of mental or neurological disorders they may have–lying on the FAA’s medical questionnaire can result in penalties of up to $250,ooo in fines or five years in prison–research has shown that commercial pilots still underreport depression. This, according to Patrick Veillette, a corporate pilot who has published articles on the the role of pilot health and safety, is an issue for aviation regulators and medical experts who are concerned with how to better approach and improve this dilemma. The shame of having to disclose that they are tormented, along with the risk of being removed from the job, results in many pilots denying that they are depressed, added Veillette.
Although there has not yet been a U.S. airline passenger death directly caused by pilot mental health issues, Jennings suggests that airlines should utilize alternative resources such as pilot family members, co-workers, random drug testing and airline health programs, since they can be significant secondary measures for identifying pilots who are psychologically unstable.
According to Jennings, these resources would be a more accurate and dependable way of detecting possibly dangerous mental health issues prior to using more extensive psychological assessments.
*Source: Bloomberg News
For a more detailed news story on the potential shortcomings of airline-pilot medical checkups, access the original article by Bloomberg News contributor, Adam Levin, JetBlue case shows airline-pilot health checks not 100%.