First it was drunk pilots, then it was distracted pilots, then it was sleepy pilots. We’ve now all come to know the incompetence of airport security, the dangerous mishaps at air traffic control that left one plane on fire calling for help ignored, because they thought their radio frequency had been hacked, an occurrence that had had happened before. Near midair crashes, runway collisions all happenings or almost happenings in one of the safest ways to travel, although maybe it’s not so safe anymore, it seems people can’t go a week without hearing about some danger in the “friendly skies”. Currently it appears we should worry about mentally unbalanced pilots; the title reads like a poor taste rhetorical question or a bad sarcastic joke, but apparently it’s a question that needs to be asked in light of not one but two separate emergencies involving separate airlines where flight personnel have gone various degrees of berserk, scaring passengers and forcing them to act in regards to their own safety and the safety of others onboard. Round one, a flight attendant screaming as if possessed, ranting that the plane was going to crash, disturbing passengers to the point they felt compelled to restrain her; equally disconcerting her revelation she was both bipolar and off her medication. Next, the pilot who started acting strangely before he began the flight missing the preflight briefing, flipping switches, seeming confused, commented to the copilot they weren’t going to Vegas, the fights destination. When the copilot cleverly got the obviously distressed pilot out of the cockpit area he soon started screaming about Iraq, bombs, bring it to idle, bring it to idle, telling people to say their prays, trying to open an emergency exit at so many thousand feet until being tackled and sat on while the plane made it’s emergency landing. All of it raising serious questions about the mental health screening given to these important workers.
While initial probing focused on the type of psychological screening done on employees prior to their employment, screenings given with continued employment, how frequently they occurred, a larger question seems to have gotten lost and remains largely unanswered and unexplored; how did the bipolar flight attendant get the job in the first place? It begs the question how our bipolar flight attendant passed the testing, seeing as she was, by her own ranting admission during the episode, being medicated for bipolar disorder and likely under the care of a mental health professional. Additionally one of the questions asked either by screening personnel or on a related employment questionnaire had to have been have you ever been diagnosed with a psychological problem, are you being treated for one, have you ever or are you currently taking medication for said type of issue? We all know antidiscrimination laws prevent employers from not hiring those with disabilities but that, like everything else, has exceptions; surely this should have been one of them. Independent of state or federal law, there are, or at least should be, airline guidelines and policies concerning the hiring of those with mental health issues, answering the broader questions of how do we let, should we let known mentally ill, diagnosed persons serve in first responder type positions; because, unlike other psychiatric problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, for which people also take medication, they are less likely to suddenly stop taking their medication. Conversely people suffering from conditions in the mood disorder category, people trying to overcome schizophrenia, are prone to abruptly refusing to take their medication, start feeling better and decide they no longer need it, lacking the sound judgment to make the connection between their improved wellbeing and the pills they take.
Originally the pilot who forced an emergency landing in Texas while on route to Los Vegas, was reported to have had a panic attack; as details surfaced about his behavior, things he said, experts leaned toward a much deeper issue, one industry analyst speculating perhaps he took, was taking some sort of medication he failed to disclose to regulators despite strict rules about what pilots can take and still maintain their active flight status. Further evidence supporting the unpopular, politically incorrect but necessary idea that some people, with some mental conditions should not be allowed in certain jobs lies in the evolution of the flight attendant, the changing nature of what it means to be a pilot today; being a flight attendant is no longer about simply customer service, passing out food and drink, pillows and blankets in first class, talking up then loading the in-flight movie, the most exciting thing that might happen is giving CPR or first aid, possibly aiding a doctor delivering a baby. Since 9-11 flight attending has taken on a much more serious tone; no longer is it rote training in seat belts, emergency exits and oxygen masks, should the plane crash. Replacing that is watching out for suspicious behavior, the knowledge that a brutal hijacking could take place and not only are you the first line of defense for the people present around you, but others on the ground. For pilots it is the knowledge that not so long ago a group of people took planes and rammed them into buildings killing multiple thousands and injuring more. It’s the new edge of horror hijacking has taken on since that tragic day 11 years ago the bold, brazen not only attack but infiltration, the revelation so many in that part of the world hate us enough to try and wipe us off the map and they are trying to use planes to do it. Continuing, look at what people encouraged by 9-11 have attempted since, the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, videos from that part of the world showing people how to hide explosives, devices in their rectum of all places to avoid detection.
Even more frightening, this time for the flying public, is what these 2 incidents revealed about airline hiring and employee retention policies; news investigations found out yes, employees are rigorously screened before hire, ruling out any instability. However there are no guidelines for rescreening; instead, there is a kind of self-monitoring honor system, a neural network analysts called it, where everyone watches out for each other. In parallel pilots, at least, are given a physical yearly to make sure they are bodily healthy enough to fly; the obvious question next in line, why wouldn’t you want to ensure the same for their mental capacity if not more so? Screening for flight crew is a little more sketchy and complicated, but they too are screened extensively before hire and little or not at all afterwards. Fortunately for the passengers handling the disturbed flight attendant, their plane was on the runway preparing to take off and was thus able to taxi back to the gate. Grace was similarly demonstrated during the pilot fiasco; there was an off duty pilot flying as a passenger who was able to aid the quick thinking copilot, the out of control pilot was greeted with people heading to a security conference and therefore they were able to subdue him without harming him, others not to mention themselves, he was, unbeknownst to passengers, unable to open the emergency exit at their attitude. But everyone acknowledges, though these incidences are rare, the outcomes were a matter of sane, quick thinking support personnel and luck, the latter of which no one should have to rely on, public or employee, using basic transportation of the modern age. It’s an example of scenarios that just shouldn’t happen, that point to negligence in the extreme as it pertains to guidelines and procedure.
And yet outside the clearly failing internal regulations of airlines when it comes to hired mentally ill employees, the lack of mental health evaluation to ascertain there are no changes to a previously healthy persons mental status, questions still remain as to exactly how someone could have missed the impeding mental breakdown of these two individuals, especially the flight attendant. It takes time for this type of medication to dissipate from one’s system and the person to devolve, show signs of impairment, distress, meaning this had been going on for who knows how long before she made headlines; someone should have been able to see something was off about this young women, reported it to a superior. The distraught pilot was so blatantly unstable the prosecution ordered a psychological evaluation before they decide if they will bring charges in an attempt to find out if he is currently mentally competent to understand the legal proceedings; you don’t go from zero to that hyped up, from normal to almost incoherent in the course of a day, a few hours. Translation something was missed; facts of particular importance when considering the medical diagnoses given to these two persons may be inaccurate. Our flight attendant sounds more like someone hallucinating, hearing voices than someone who is only bipolar. We understand the concept that a panic attack was an educated guess made by those reporting what transpired, but the man seems to have had a full on psychotic break and no one noticed; highly unlikely.
Of course there should be continued mental health screenings for flight personnel and pilots; at minimum yearly just like their physicals, every 6 months to err on the side of caution. Similar precautions are already taken amongst police, fire paramedics; during traumatic events, large fires, natural disasters, personnel are provided with counselors and there are mandatory sessions. Any time there is an officer involved shooting they must see a department mental health professional before returning to duty. People are also on the lookout for behavioral changes in coworkers, subordinates and people will be evaluated. The biggest question is why such safeguards have not been extended to the airline industry; why the the hell isn’t it already part of standard operating practices, at least since 9-11 and the added stresses and dangers? Focusing on the monumental task of how to go about balancing legislation like the Americans with disabilities act along with the safety of the public, if you’re going to hire someone with a disclosed mental health issue, they must have a minimum 3 years of stability, no hospitalizations, no run ins with the police that indicate a person is exhibiting signs of a poorly controlled mental illness. If they are taking medication, they must regularly see their mental health provider, have no history of going off their medication and sign a release form allowing collaboration between the outside mental health person or persons and employer mental health staff so no signs of trouble are missed. Here you’ve created clear parameters, a way to satisfy the law still giving those with disabilities access to airline career fields simultaneously limiting potential danger to the public.
At the same time, it can’t be easy to be a pilot, a flight attendant flying on planes daily in a post 9-11 world, an even more compelling statement for people whose flying careers began years before the fall of the twin towers, years before hijacking and terrorism were a profound threat; putting the question to us, how do we help pilots, flight attendants old and new cope with ever increasing job stress, mounting responsibility? Perhaps a support group for onboard flight crew, giving people a chance to voice their fears, talk about their worries with coworkers who will understand; just like any other support group, containing a leader and rules so that everyone gets the best out of the experience. Plus there is yet another individual between plane personnel and potential disaster, distress visited on the flying public from a source meant to protect them. They see a person escalating, continually upset, possibly paranoid, they report it to superiors on staff, mental health professionals and let them deal with it. Another option, making available mental health professionals not only for formal evaluations but on an informal basis, so that people who need someone to talk to, who don’t want to freak out their coworkers have that outlet. People who could benefit from stress relieving, calming techniques, get them; even folks who may need antianxiety medication to maintain a sense of well-being, continue functioning in their job are given the tools they need. Things listed in the preceding paragraphs not the results of clairvoyance, seeing around corners, but logically thinking things through, deciding what the best outcome is and devising a plan to get there. It’s common sense you screen airline personnel on planes for mental health regularly because it is a high stress job with high stakes, people’s lives. It’s common sense you have guidelines regarding people with certain disabilities, illnesses when they work in this kind of job, because it allows them to work that job and still keep members of the public safe. The problem, no one was looking before; they either assumed it was already being done or wasn’t necessary. Unfortunately it always was and it shouldn’t take something like this to expose the obvious.