Removing stigma key to better pilot mental health: US Federal Aviation Administration

Delayed Germanwings planes wait on the tarmac following a security alert at Cologne airport, in Cologne, Germany, on May 30, 2016.
Delayed Germanwings planes wait on the tarmac following a security alert at Cologne airport, in Cologne, Germany, on May 30, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (AFP) - The best course to prevent catastrophes like the Germanwings crash is to minimise the stigma around mental illness and encourage pilots to get help, an FAA advisory panel said Thursday (June 9).

The Federal Aviation Administration convened the panel in May 2015, two months after a Germanwings pilot deliberately crashed a plane in the French Alps, killing himself and the 149 others on board. Investigators subsequently found he had a history of depression and suicidal tendencies.

"There may be misperceptions that all mental illness is career-ending," the FAA report said.

While some forms of mental illness such as bipolar disorder and psychosis are indeed career-killers as far as flying planes, "many pilots have treatable conditions," said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

"We need to do more to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness in the aviation industry so pilots are more likely to self-report, get treated, and return to work."

Key recommendations include boosting the psychological training of aviation medical examiners, FAA-licenced physicians who examine airline pilots every six months or 12 months, depending on the pilots' age, and are required to be told by pilots of any medications or visits to medical professionals.

The panel said most aviation medical examiners have only a couple of weeks of training in psychology, a problem that could be addressed with booster courses to highlight how to identify warning signs.

Other steps include greater use of peer-to-peer support programmes that would encourage self-reporting, greater mental health literacy programs within airlines and more pilot support programmes.

FAA officials said they discarded an idea to institute regular psychological testing of airline pilots because they found "no convincing data" it was successful, in part because such an exam is only valuable if it coincides with a period in which the pilot is troubled.