Aviation industry, health officials to study pilot mental health following Germanwings tragedy

In this Oct. 16, 2014 file photo an Airbus 320 of Germanwings.
In this Oct. 16, 2014 file photo an Airbus 320 of Germanwings. AP Photo/Frank Augstein

In the wake of the Germanwings tragedy in March, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is launching a study into pilot mental health and well-being.

The FAA says it’s working with the aviation industry and the health community to conduct its research. The project was recommended by the Commercial Aviation Safety Team on the heels of the Germanwings Flight 9525 and Malaysia Flight 370 accidents.

“U.S. pilots undergo robust medical screening, but recent accidents in other parts of the world prompted the FAA to take a new look at the important issue of pilot fitness,” the FAA said in a statement.

READ MORE: How are airline pilots screened for mental health?

“The ARC (Aviation Rulemaking Committee) will examine issues including the awareness and reporting of emotional and mental health issues, the methods used to evaluate pilot emotional and mental health, and barriers to reporting such issues,” the statement read.

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The results should be put together within six months. They could shape medical screening, aircraft design, pilot training and testing, the FAA says.

Ottawa’s Transport Ministry did not yet provide comment to Global News on Thursday. The Transportation Safety Board said it can only comment on specific cases.

In March, Flight 9525 descended midway through its flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf and crashed into the French Alps. French prosecutors alleged that the co-pilot “intentionally” sent the plane into its doomed descent, killing all 150 people on board.

READ MORE: How can a pilot be locked out of a cockpit?

In March 2014, Flight 370 is believed to have crashed off the coast of western Australia in the southern Indian Ocean. It was travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing carrying 239 people. Its whereabouts haven’t been discovered and wreckage hasn’t been recovered.

How are pilots screened for mental health right now?

“The U.S. and Canada follow very similar protocols. All airlines do a standard medical screening for every new employee, particularly pilots and there’s emphasis on a psychological component,” said Capt. Dave Funk, a former Northwest Airlines captain with Laird & Associates, an aviation security consulting firm.

After that, screening isn’t necessarily done routinely.

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READ MORE: Is there enough mental health support for first responders?

“As an industry, we’re good at self-screening,” Funk explained. Self-screening entails being cognizant of your own mental state and paying attention to cues from your colleagues.

Funk says that crewmembers are trained to watch for signs of mental health concerns in themselves and their peers. Because pilots typically specialize in flying a certain model, they tend to work with the same people.

“Even at a large airline, you know all the other captains and pilots. It’s the small group of you, so you pick up the signs. If they’re continually having bad days, word gets around fast,” he said.

READ MORE: Work-life balance, job insecurity key mental health factors in the workplace

Air Canada says that right now, its monitoring developments closely but that any conclusions would be “speculative.”

“With respect to the well-being of pilots, Air Canada adheres to Canadian Aviation Regulations and ICAO recommended standards and practices. Initial pilot hiring includes a behavioural assessment and pilots receive recurrent medical exams everyday year (twice a year after age 60),” a spokesman said in an email.

Transport Canada says that all commercial pilots are seen by a medical practitioner prior to receiving a medical certificate.

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READ MORE: Canadian gov’t inaction on mental health hurts economy, families: report

“Transport Canada Civil Aviation Medical Examiners assess individual pilots on a regular basis according to the type of licence, age, and health of the pilot. Under strict Transport Canada guidelines, Civil Aviation Medical Examiners review every pilot’s medical history to ensure there are no signs of psychosis or suicidal behaviour,” the federal agency said in an email to Global News.