Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Federal Aviation Administration Group to Review Mental-Health Screenings for Pilots: In wake of Germanwings jet crash, advisory group will consider changes to screening process

The Wall Street Journal 
May 27, 2015 7:18 p.m. ET

Following the lead of European regulators reacting to the presumed suicidal co-pilot who brought down a Germanwings jet, the Federal Aviation Administration has set up an advisory group to consider possible changes in mental-health screening of U.S. commercial pilots.

The industry-government committee, which also includes labor and medical experts, can look at everything from potential regulatory changes to voluntary efforts by unions and airlines, the agency indicated Wednesday.

The move, however, comes after international groups representing pilots and carriers have warned against overreacting to the Germanwings tragedy, which killed all 149 people aboard the Airbus jetliner that went down in the French Alps in March.

The European Aviation Safety Agency formed a similar study group last month, and German regulators have launched a separate effort to re-examine mental-health assessments of airline pilots. The aviation arm of the United Nations also indicated it would re-evaluate international mental-health standards.

It isn’t clear whether any of those groups will end up urging major changes to existing screening procedures. Strict privacy laws in Germany allowed Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot, to keep his mental problems hidden from management of the airline, which is a unit of Deutsche Lufthansa AG.

Safety and medical experts have stressed the difficulty of devising a new regulatory system—even one mandating more-frequent and in-depth screenings—that can reliably identify suicidal tendencies among pilots.

Given the current limitations of testing and medical science, many psychiatrists and psychologist believe such a goal is unreasonable. The public has to “recognize this is a complex medical challenge,” according to Olumuyiwa Bernard Aliu, president of the top policy-making council of the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization.

The FAA has tasked its advisory committee with filing a report by the end of the year regarding pilot fitness related to emotional and mental-health issues. In a release, the agency said U.S. pilots “undergo robust medical screening,” but added that “recent accidents in other parts of the world” prompted a review of the issue.

In the U.S., airline pilots undergo routine medical screening by FAA-approved examiners once or twice a year, depending on their age. But such checks typically include only perfunctory efforts to determine mental health, generally putting the onus on pilots to self-report problems such as depression, drug or alcohol abuse and changes in medication, according to pilots and physicians. The system has remained largely unchanged over decades, except for FAA decisions several years ago allowing aviators to keep flying while on certain antidepressant drugs.

Whatever the FAA group eventually recommends, unions and carriers already have strongly urged against swift or dramatic changes.

Tony Tyler, chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, the airline industry’s primary global trade group, last month warned that regulators in Europe appeared to be embracing “immediate reaction rather than careful consideration.”

Around the same time, leaders of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations, representing 100,000 commercial aviators world-wide, also called for a more measured approach by European authorities, asserting they should wait for a final crash report before considering changes.

At the end of his tenure as president of the association, Don Wykoff told the group’s annual conference in Madrid: “We need to advocate together for things that work, not knee-jerk, ineffective quick fixes that only make some feel better in the short term.”

Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association for North America—which is participating in the FAA’s new group—said in an interview last month that after some accidents, “there can be an urge to do something quickly, right now,” but often the results “are either ineffective or completely useless.”

As an alternative to stepped-up federal screening requirements, over the years Mr. Canoll and other pilot leaders have urged continued reliance on voluntary, union-run programs to pinpoint and confidentially assist pilots with emotional or psychological problems.

Such an approach, according to proponents, is more likely to prompt pilots to acknowledge personal difficulties and seek help. Many airline officials agree that mandating tougher screening requirements may end up being counterproductive, making pilots more prone to hiding mental-health problems from managers.

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