Thursday, April 9, 2015

"Like workers in all industries, pilots deal with personal tragedy and pressures at work and in their personal lives. When you are not fit to fly, physically or mentally, the regulations and expectations stipulate that you stay home. It would be fair to say, however, that machismo is quite prevalent in aviation, and most pilots would rather not fly because of a bad cold than admit they are dealing with mental health problems.

"While the culture of the aviation industry has improved over the last few decades, mental health issues remain an enormous taboo. One major problem is that most pilots who clear the substantial hurdles to sit in that seat (having the skills, having the finances, relocating, finding a job) will do anything to keep their position. Apart from grieving and going through a divorce, it is not an insignificant risk to admit to your colleagues and employer in the airline industry that you are dealing with issues that are not of a physical nature. The fear of losing your job is very real, even paralyzing.

"Commercial pilots are required to have a Class 1 medical certificate, which has to be renewed every year (and more even regularly as you age). This is on top of regular proficiency checks, where an examiner assesses whether you are up to your job. Lose or fail any of those, and it can quickly be the end of your career and your livelihood.

"Naturally, airlines select candidates who can deal with the stresses and pressures of flying. Lubitz himself was the product of Lufthansa Flight Training, a prestigious institution that uses the DLR flight aptitude and skills test. This exam is one of the hardest selection procedures in the industry and has a very low pass rate. However, like all current selection procedures, the test does not check for mental illness. Psychological profiles are assessed, but these simply determine if someone fits the job profile and the company culture.

"There is no adequate support system in place for pilots suffering from mental health issues, even if brought on by fatigue or a variety of other causes common to the industry. The perception among pilots is that if we ask for help we will be out the door, with no hope of returning to work. This pressure is not conducive to optimal mental health for those sitting at the controls. [...]

"The point is not to justify Lubitz’s actions, but to try to understand why a human being might behave in such a way, so as to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Within aviation over the last few decades, this has been the goal of aircraft accident investigations: not to heap blame on any particular individual, but to try to uncover a chain of events in order to draw lessons. Similarly, we shouldn’t just throw up our arms and declare Lubitz a “madman” or a 'rotten apple' who lived in a social vacuum.

"We should instead situate Lubitz’s actions in the context of both the degradation of work experienced by pilots and the degeneration of the aviation industry. Hyper-individualized analyses of cause and effect won’t get us very far."

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