Pilot checks in S'pore are strict, say experts

PILOTS flying for Singapore carriers are subject to strict medical and mental screening, experts and pilots said, following a Germanwings crash in the French Alps two weeks ago.

The co-pilot is suspected to have crashed the plane after locking the captain out of the cockpit.

This has put the spotlight on how regulators and airlines screen cockpit crew.

There are currently no global standards. In Singapore, however, before Singapore Airlines, SilkAir, SIA Cargo, Scoot, Tigerair or Jetstar can hire a pilot, the candidate must undergo a session lasting half an hour to 45 minutes at the office of the civil aviation authority's medical board.

During this session, the candidate undergoes a verbal, written and behavioural assessment.

This is repeated every year for pilots until they reach the age of 60, and twice a year after that.

Follow-up checks are done by one of about 20 doctors, typically general practitioners, on the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore's (CAAS) medical panel.

Reports are submitted to the regulator and, if something is amiss, the pilots are called in.

Unlike many other aviation regulators, the CAAS requires every fourth review to be done by its medical board, to ensure objective oversight.

An aviation medical specialist who did not want to be identified said: "Familiarity breeds complacency, and if the same doctor is seeing the chap year in, year out, the whole process can turn into a fairly casual affair, which clearly is not desirable."

Dr Philip J. Scarpa Jr, president of the US-based Aerospace Medical Association, said such checks are important.

"Although serious and sudden psychological conditions are often difficult to screen... less serious and more symptomatic conditions like depression, anxiety, mania, and alcohol and drug abuse do show signs and are...worth screening for," he said.

But Mr Jacques Astre, president of consultancy International Aviation Safety Solutions, said screening has its limits. "Better screening of pilots would help, but there is no guarantee that any kind of scrutiny can ensure a person's mental state," he said.

A junior SIA pilot who asked not to be named said: "It would help if we are trained to identify signs of mental and emotional distress in our colleagues... Equally important, especially for younger pilots, is how to tackle the matter if it is our senior who is affected."

karam@sph.com.sg