The importance of the mental well-being of the pilot seems to have been lost on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the airlines.
Why? Why did Andreas Lubitz decide to descend the Airbus A320 to an altitude that would put it right into mountainous terrain? Why did he choose that particular day, and flight, to carry out his dastardly deed? Did he wake up on the wrong side of the bed? Or worse, were his eggs cooked wrong that morning?
The evidence released so far is already pretty damning against Lubitz. Whatever answers prosecutors may or may not find in their relentless pursuit of establishing Lubitz as the perpetrator, it won’t bring the other 149 souls aboard back. They were sacrificed so that a 27-year-old with a history of depression could lock himself in the cockpit and meet the Alps head-on at 430mph, obliterating the jet and everything in it. It’s not just suicide, it’s an obscenely selfish, murderous act. If that’s how Germanwings 9525 was brought down, which is looking all the more likely, it’s even more agonizing since Lubitz isn’t around to face up to his abominable actions. It’s a nightmare scenario, and I shudder at the thought of what was going through the mind of the captain as he struggled to re-enter the flight deck.
So what happens now? How do we make sure this doesn’t happen again? Can we?
Over the last century-plus of flight, countless safeguards have been added that help make the air transport industry the safest it’s ever been. Not only is the modern technology in our aircraft mind-boggling in its capability, the companies in the business of hauling billions of passengers around the world every year have developed additional safety programs designed to mitigate any potential issues long before they occur.
By and large, the system works as advertised, but there’s a large, glaring piece of the puzzle missing – mental health. It’s no secret that a large percentage of the population suffers from mental health issues. Odds are one in six people will go through a bout of depression in their lifetime, and every year millions in the US alone suffer from one form or another of mental illness. Pilots, being the humans we are (contrary to popular belief), are no exception. However, the importance of mental well-being seems to have been lost on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and even the airlines themselves. It’s been brought to the forefront with the latest Germanwings crash in the French Alps, given the monstrously evil actions of the first officer Andreas Lubitz.
As airline pilots, we undergo annual (or bi-annual, depending on age) physical examinations to determine our fitness for flight. We expect to have our vitals checked, reflexes tested, eyes evaluated, et cetera, yet there’s no formal, in-depth psychiatric evaluation that takes place provided the pilot displays basic emotional stability. We’re responsible to self-disclose any mental illnesses. If a pilot has a history of mental health issues, it’s very possible that they won’t be able to pass the medical exam, which means they’d be unable to work. Once the medical certificate is lost, it can be an uphill battle getting it back. It’s not surprising then, that pilots with these issues continue to fly the friendly skies, and every once in a while, it mental illness rears its ugly head.
Three years ago, JetBlue captain Clayton Osbon suffered an in-flight meltdown while enroute from New York to Las Vegas. Somewhere high over the midwestern US, he began spouting off about al-Qaeda, Jesus, and how they would never make it to Vegas. When Osbon got up and started making a scene in front of the passengers, the first officer wisely locked the rambling, belligerent captain out of the cockpit while flight attendants and passengers rushed to restrain him. Ironically and tragically, Germanwings 9525 captain Patrick Sondenheimer was locked out of the flight deck in the exact same manner, before Lubitz began the fatal descent.
Fortunately the Jetblue incident was resolved safely, with only minor injuries resulting from the struggle to control the psychotic, raging captain. It’s not hard to imagine the outcome if Osbon had been the sole pilot in the cockpit at the time of his episode – we would be talking about the similarities between that JetBlue flight and Germanwings 9525.
Though charged with interference of a flight crew, captain Clayton Osbon was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Now in a surprising turn of events following the Germanwings crash, he’s suing JetBlue for negligence to the tune of almost $15 million for not preventing him going to work. And he shouldn’t have. After showing up for work late, unkempt, and careless in his preflight duties, Osbon should have removed himself from the flight. Lubitz supposedly had doctor’s notes excusing him from work last week, but his employer didn’t know that – again, self-disclosure.
Most pilots would have taken a logical approach to their situation and called out sick to remove themselves from the cockpit – but at some companies that’s a punitive measure, resulting in docked pay or some other consequence. That puts pressure on crewmembers to go to work even when they’re not fit for duty. Even if Osbon’s last-minute sick call resulted in an ‘occurrence’ or delayed flight, that is certainly a better alternative than getting himself arrested. Any number of people could have reported Osbon as well, but he slipped through the cracks just like Andreas Lubitz.
Even though these incidences are rare, self-disclosure of mental instability doesn’t appear to be a working solution. Had both of these pilots undergone psychiatric and psychological examinations coinciding with their medical exams, both the Germanwings crash and the JetBlue incident might have been avoided. They were responsible for their actions and for removing themselves from duty if they weren’t fit to fly, but clearly that didn’t prevent them from going to work.
While JetBlue captain Clayton Osbon is 100% responsible for his actions that day and his lawsuit seems frivolous on the surface, several passengers from the JetBlue flight have also sued the airline. That number could have been much higher, had Osbon flown the Airbus into the ground just like Lubitz. The FAA and airline industry need to be taking a closer look at the mental health of its pilots to ensure that these events don’t happen again. I know I certainly don’t want to be sitting next to a pilot who slipped through the cracks.