Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot who last week steered a Germanwings flight into a mountainside, had a history of depression so debilitating that he left his pilot training program for six months in the late 2000s, according to Germany’s Bild newspaper. When he was ready to return, he had to pass a battery of psychological tests required for pilot certification, as well as another series of tests that were a prerequisite for his job at Lufthansa, which owns Germanwings. But in all likelihood, that was the last time Lubitz’s employer or government subjected him to a formal psychological evaluation.
In hindsight, that might seem an instance of negligence. But it’s sadly representative of the broader problems with how the aviation industry, and especially budget carriers like Germanwings, have failed to prioritize pilots’ psychological health.
Commercial flying, as anyone who steps onto a plane knows, is an increasingly stressful activity for passengers. But the same goes for flight crews. In recent years, crews have often had to sacrifice compensation and time off, even as their workloads have increased.
Arguably, no group of pilots has been under greater stress in recent years than those flying for budget carriers. The business model is simple: provide cheap fares on the back of ruthless cost-cutting. Much of that cost-cutting falls on the backs of crew. Though no study has taken a look at the physical and psychiatric effects of low-cost piloting, a 2006 study concluded that “identifiable fatigue problems are reported by short-haul pilots,” including those at low-cost carriers. Fatigue can directly impair job performance. As countless studies have shown, it can also trigger a range of psychological illnesses.
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So who would want to work under the conditions set by budget airlines? Any pilot desperate for a job – of which there are plenty, thanks to the crippling levels of debt that aspiring pilots often rack up while studying at expensive flight training programs. As The Atlantic put it last year, pilots regularly take on “$200,000 in debt for a job that pays $22,914 per year, to start.”
Budget carriers have a reputation for exploiting this desperation. Last month, Bloomberg reported that low-cost carriers are “chasing the lowest pay and most relaxed work rules for pilots,” which creates uncomfortable questions about “safety oversight.”
Tougher screening needed
Ideally, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the United Nations’ aviation agency, would interrupt this race to the bottom by setting psychological safety standards for pilots. But ICAO has long dismissed the utility of psychological testing.
As a result, each country sets its own standards for how pilots should be evaluated psychologically once they’ve been certified and hired – and those standards tend to be lax. Some countries, including the United States, don’t mandate any formal psychological evaluations for active pilots. Rather, they roll them into a pilot’s regularly scheduled medical examinations.
Pilots should undergo more rigorous and regular psychological screenings performed by psychologists, not physicians. And during those tests, pilots should be assured that they have the option of seeking treatment without having to fear losing their jobs.
For now, we can’t say if additional screening would have flagged Lubitz. But even if it failed, the information gleaned from widespread screening would provide airlines and regulators with a far better understanding of their pilots. It might even encourage them to take steps to improve their mental health.
Adam Minter is based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and other areas.