Recent events, particularly the Lufthansa and Malaysia Airlines disasters, raise an unsettling question. Is air travel as safe as authorities and airline companies would have us believe?
Post 9/11 we installed sturdy doors that protect the pilots from dangerous passengers. But what protects the passengers against dangerous pilots? Safe behind those doors, deranged pilots are free to do as they choose.
One would hope that airlines take extreme precautions in selecting and monitoring their pilots so that this is not a concern. But now we have to wonder. As it happens, the mental health of pilots is verified essentially on an honor system. They are tested by professionals only during the hiring process. Thereafter they are expected to report any problems they are having, a strange notion since nut cases are hardly reliable witnesses to their mental state. Still, surely incidents like the Lufthansa case must be very unusual, don’t you think?
Well, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that about one in four adults in our society experiences a serious mental illness in a given year. We are not talking about inability to sleep, etc. These are the biggies like bipolar disorder, PTSD, panic disorder, and major depression. Even for U.S. carriers that enforce a two-man cockpit rule, this implies that the chance that both pilots holding our lives in their hands are wacko might be as high as 6%. Actually, that overstates the risk for two reasons. First, a disturbed pilot might in fact follow his duty and report his incapacity. And second, the two pilots’ derangements might not coincide. Nevertheless we are left with a non-negligible risk far higher than anyone acknowledges.
Also, the latest incident uncovered a related concern. For all carriers, including our own, suffering from depression doesn’t disqualify a pilot from flight status as long as he is taking medications that adequately control his condition. I think I see how this rule arose in these politically correct times, but I read too many stories of people off their meds to be comfortable with this. How about you?