The dicey situation in which JetBlue captain Clayton Osbon apparently suffered some kind of mental breakdown while commanding a flight from New York to Las Vegas on March 27 raises some important questions. But the incident also is guaranteed to attract a certain type of attention to commercial aviation, that of members of the U.S. Senate and Congress, who think they have to micromanage every aspect of aviation safety.
I fully expect any day now proposed new legislation that instructs the FAA to conduct mental evaluations on every commercial pilot, as part of the medical certification process. Politicians, after all, jumped on the Colgan Air accident, completely ignored all evidence as to what caused the accident and came up with cockamamie legislation forcing the FAA to require that all airline pilots have 1,500 hours minimum flight time (or less with a college degree or military experience). Apparently, the writers of this legislation spent zero time consulting with anyone who knows something about aviation safety; they completely neglected to figure out not only whether the minimum flight time would have helped in the Colgan accident (it would not), how new pilots are supposed to gain 1,500 hours without going bankrupt and whether just logging 1,500 hours of any kind of flying has any safety benefit at all.
So this next legislative effort, to try and prevent a recurrence of what happened to JetBlue Flight 191 and Clayton Osbon, will no doubt be completely ignorant of reality and costly for pilots and aviation operators.
Osbon’s illness is the issue here, and it’s unfortunate that the condition went undetected by the filters already in place. It is fortunate that the first officer on Flight 191 cleverly locked Osbon out of the cockpit and assumed, correctly, that passengers would help subdue him. That was a smart move and may have prevented something much worse from happening.
While there is currently little in the medical certification system that can detect an oncoming mental breakdown, there is actually a well developed procedure that can prevent people at risk from clocking in on their job. It’s called the Fit For Work system, and U.S. charter operator Aero Jet Services uses it regularly to screen pilots before they take off.
It’s hard to say if Fit For Work would have worked in this situation, but news accounts suggest Osbon was so late to work that he missed the crew briefing. Had Osbon been required to do the Fit For Work test, he might have been asked not to fly that day and to seek some medical assistance.
Politicians contemplating new legislation regarding the psychological fitness of pilots might consider this: rather than force the FAA to begin psychological screening of pilots, investigate the utility of tests such as Fit For Work. This would be much simpler and likely far more effective, not to mention more logical. Oh, but politicians are involved, so forget about common sense, and stand by for onerous new regulations instead.