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US panel said to push better mental health measures for pilots

By ALAN LEVIN | Bloomberg | Published: June 9, 2016

A U.S. advisory panel is calling for heightened measures to spot and treat mentally ill airline pilots in an attempt to prevent the kind of breakdowns that led to last year's suicide that killed 150 people in France, according to a person familiar with the group's conclusions.

A group of industry and labor officials and medical experts appointed by the Federal Aviation Administration wants better training for doctors who review pilots' fitness for duty and more measures at airlines to encourage pilots with psychological issues to come forward and receive treatment, said the person, who wasn't authorized to speak about the report.

The panel won't seek broad new psychological screening for pilot candidates, which was seen as ineffective against identifying the handful of people capable of taking a plane down, according to the person. The FAA has invited reporters to a briefing later Thursday to release the findings.

The advisory group was convened to study what could be done to stem an issue that has led to multiple catastrophic crashes at a time when most other causes of aviation accidents have almost been wiped out.

Since 2013, there have been at least two airliners downed by pilots and investigators suspect a third, Malaysia Air Flight 370, was intentionally flown to the southern Indian Ocean in 2014 where it disappeared. There were 422 people killed in the three cases.

France's accident investigation agency, the Bureau of Investigations and Analysis or BEA, concluded that a co-pilot deliberately crashed a Germanwings plane into a mountainside on March 24, 2015. Earlier this year, the agency urged regulators to re-examine how pilot health is monitored and assessed.

The BEA also said pilots should lose privacy protection of their health records. Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz, who locked his captain out of the cockpit before programming the plane to descend, had been diagnosed with psychotic depression and was recommended for psychiatric hospital treatment two weeks before the suicide flight, according to the BEA. Doctors in Germany aren't allowed to reveal such information to an employer and Lubitz never disclosed it.

Currently in the United States, airline pilots must receive a medical check by an FAA-approved physician at least once a year to ensure they are fit to fly. Once they reach age 40, the check occurs every six months, according to the agency.

There's no direct psychological screening for U.S. pilots, though they must answer a questionnaire that includes mental-health issues and they have to disclose drugs they are taking, including medications for depression.

The Aerospace Medical Association, which does scientific research into the fitness and safety of pilots and astronauts, has in the past suggested that FAA-approved doctors ask more questions designed to reveal mental health. The association's work was prompted by a JetBlue Airways Corp. captain who had a psychological breakdown on a 2012 flight and was locked out of the cockpit.

Still, such screening shouldn't be expected to predict the most extreme cases when pilots intend to commit suicide and kill passengers, Philip Scarpa, a physician and former president of the association, said in an interview last year.

Better screening would still have value because too many airline pilots suffer from depression, anxiety and substance abuse issues that can threaten safety, Scarpa said. Regulations and airline policies should also be tailored so that pilots could reveal these issues and receive treatment without jeopardizing their careers, he said. That would help induce more pilots to come forward.

Most U.S. airlines have programs encouraging pilots to voluntarily reveal health issues or to anonymously disclose concerns related to other employees.

There have been seven intentional fatal airline crashes since 1982, according to investigators. While none have occurred on U.S. airlines, there was the 2012 JetBlue incident and a 1994 case in which a FedEx Corp. pilot attacked fellow pilots during a flight before being subdued.

The U.S. has had a policy requiring at least two airline employees in the cockpit at all times. If a pilot needs to use the restroom, a flight attendant or another pilot must stay in the cockpit during the break. While that rule was not in place in Europe at the time of the Germanwings crash, most nations have since adopted it.

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