The report released today on the Germanwings incident recommends that the confidentiality of doctors reports on pilots be relaxed and information should be made available to airlines.
Statistically it has been proven many times that you are more likely to come to harm travelling to or from an airport than in the air, but is flying still safe? Many years ago I flew as a private pilot and in one particular year in the early ‘90s there were 19 fatalities in the UK involving private flights. To put this into perspective more people died falling out of train doors and almost 6000 died in road accidents. It is a tribute to the safety efforts in the UK and that of car manufacturers that road deaths has steadily decreased to around 2000 in 2013 despite there being more vehicles on the road than ever before.
Recent events, like the missing Malaysian airliner, MH370, bring the focus of the public’s mind to airline safety. Now, I’m not going to get embroiled in conspiracy theories here.
No one knows what happened to that plane but I feel sure that the answer will be found and the cause of the loss identified. As in the case of the Air France flight it took years to find the plane in the depths of the Atlantic but find it they did and the reasons for the crash exposed.
Given the staggering amounts of flights every day flying safety is unquestionably good. But are we doing all we can to increase that safety?
It is now perfectly possible for an airliner to taxi on to the runway in Heathrow, London and with the electronics engaged it can fly to and land in Sydney, Australia without the pilots ever touching the controls. In a lot of cases the trouble only starts when a human intervenes and takes over control.
So if a human takes over, what procedures are in place to prove his or hers fitness to fly? A recent enquiry into airlines showed that only some airlines carried out mental stability checks when taking on new pilots. Regular health checks are rigorously carried out on all pilots, private or commercial. Whether mental health continued during their career, checks were very rarely carried by a few airlines and not ever by the majority of airlines.
Why should we worry about pilot mental health?
There have been cases where pilot suicides have been proved to be the cause of an airliner crash. Safety methods introduced to protect the cockpit from terrorist invasion means that one pilot can take the opportunity of shutting the other pilot out and plunging the plane to its doom.
The life of an airline pilot cannot be as glamorous as the general populace imagines. There are long haul flights where boredom must be a big factor particularly if the aircraft is flying itself. Add to that all the other stresses that life can throw in, marital problems, depression and death in the family or whatever that we can all be subjected to and the problems can be increased.
Very recently the passengers on a flight over Pakistan were startled by a fist fight, between a pilot and a flight attendant, which started in the cockpit and spilled over into the galley.
Airline safety is taken very seriously with practically all accidents and near misses being thoroughly investigated but corrective measures are slow to be implemented. The reason for this is that any proposed change must be rigorously tested to ensure that it does not introduce another unforeseen unsafe condition. Then it has to be transmitted to all the airlines in the world before implementation.
The question of aircrew mental stability, however, can be dealt with fairly easily. Most modern companies employ psychological profiling during recruitment and there is a wealth of procedures and tests readily available. These could be introduced into recruitment procedures combined with normal health checks. The same procedures could be used during regular health checks.
During my career I trained oil and gas installation crews to deal with major emergencies and their ability to cope with stressful situations. There is no reason why this cannot be carried out in the aviation industry.