AIN Blog: Torqued: What’s the FAA Doing about Crewmember Mental Health?

 - May 31, 2012, 10:39 PM

Stress is all around us these days. Probably nowhere more so than in the pack ’em in, move ’em out world that travel by air has become–at least for those unfortunate enough not to have access to their own aircraft or private charter. Airline travel is a pressure cooker for passengers and crew alike, with tensions often flaring because too many humans and their unchecked cargo are shoehorned into the confined quarters that are our modern aircraft cabins. Add uncomfortable cabin temperatures–whether too hot or too cold–and weather or mechanical delays and tensions rise. 

 But while there’s clearly a toll on passengers, many of us on the safety side of the industry are increasingly concerned about crewmember stress and the way it may be playing out in the cockpits and cabins of airlines big and small. Maybe the spectacular meltdown of a JetBlue pilot that forced a copilot to lock him out of his cockpit wasn’t caused by stress, or could not have been predicted. Perhaps stress wasn’t to blame for the March 2012 meltdown of an American flight attendant or for the 2010 dramatic take-this-job-and-shove-it emergency slide of a JetBlue flight attendant.

Maybe these apparent mental or emotional breakdowns were unpredictable. And I say maybe, because often times breakdowns in aviation–whether machine or human–have precursors that are missed until the stars (or the Swiss cheese holes, as Professor Reason might say) all line up and an incident or accident occurs. Fortunately, no injuries or loss of life occurred in these incidents. But much as the FAA or airlines may want to avoid publicly addressing the issue, crewmember mental-health issues have caused accidents and loss of life. And more needs to be done now to identify those at risk. The FAA needs to take a leadership role. Now is not the time to dither. We have had our early warning signs.

Worst-case Scenarios

As the FAA clearly knows (the FAA Aeromedical Division has done studies of this), in the most egregious situations mental-health problems have led to aircraft-assisted suicide, in which a pilot uses his aircraft to kill himself by intentionally crashing it into the ground. These suicides are not an unknown phenomenon in aviation, with some reports estimating two or three such events a year. Most of these are general aviation pilots. But at least one involved a major airline pilot intentionally crashing an airplane full of people into the Atlantic Ocean. 

That airline was Egypt Air. The NTSB determined the crash of Egypt Air Flight 990 on Halloween night in 1999 to have been caused intentionally by the actions of the relief first officer on the flight. The Board made no specific finding of suicide, but that is the leading theory. It should be noted that the Egyptian government hotly disputes the NTSB’s determinations, and instead contends that the cause of the accident was mechanical failure. I was on the Board at the time of this accident and personally reviewed the flight data recorder data. The FDR did not support the mechanical-failure theory. In particular, the aircraft gyrations noted on the FDR were not consistent with any known mechanical failures and were more consistent with active control of the aircraft. That, coupled with statements by the relief officer and the captain heard on the cockpit voice recorder (also strongly disputed by the Egyptian government), made suicide-by-airplane the leading theory of investigators.

So while the investigation and report relied heavily on circumstantial evidence, some evidence that also supported the suicide theory never made it into the final report, mostly because of concerns that it would unnecessarily inflame relations with the Egyptian government. In Islam, suicide is considered one of the biggest sins. (And, yes, I know this doesn’t square with 9/11 or other suicide attacks, but I can’t explain it and I am not going to try.)

Publicize Safety Initiatives

So certainly we now have ample warning that some crewmembers on some major airlines are cracking–and their problems are, unfortunately, falling through the cracks of the FAA’s and the airlines’ systems of evaluating fitness for duty. So what are the FAA and the airlines doing? Do we really need to wait for a fatal accident to mount the kind of review that such an accident would prompt? (Why did it take the Colgan aircraft crash in Buffalo, N.Y., to mount the kind of review of pilot fatigue and training issues that were well known before 50 people died?)

The airlines are historically reluctant to publicly discuss safety initiatives for fear of scaring the flying public. But what’s scarier for many fliers I speak with, inside and outside the aviation industry, is not knowing what–if anything–is being done. Not everything requires a new set of regulations. Sometimes some old-fashioned guidance can be helpful, and knowing that it’s been issued is reassuring to an already jittery flying public.

For passengers it’s bad enough to worry about being assigned the dreaded middle seat on a long-haul flight–something that happens to more and more people as load factors continue to rise–but worrying that one of your crewmembers is going to lose it on your flight is really unacceptable. It’s clear to me that the incident with the JetBlue pilot shook people up. Sure, these incidents, against the backdrop of the millions of rage-free miles flown, are minuscule to industry insiders, but they gain a larger dimension in the public mind when viewed through the prism of our 24-hour news cycle. 

The accident rate is at an all-time low. Our aircraft have become more and more robust and mechanically reliable. The key to preventing future accidents lies increasingly in the human-factors arena. And these crewmember meltdowns are clearly telling us something: it’s now up to the FAA, in cooperation with the airlines, unions and medical experts, to tell us what that is and how to prevent it in the future.