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In Asia, pilot fitness a matter of testing

– Investigators’ focus on the role of pilots on the missing Malaysian jetliner casts a spotlight on how commercial aviators are screened for mental health.

Malaysian Airline System gives psychological tests, a common industry practice in Asia, which is home to two of the five airlines that have had in-flight suicides since 1982.

But in the United States and Europe – whose airlines have had no such cases in that time period – regulators don’t mandate recurring psychological exams and depend on pilots to disclose past or current issues and medications during physical checkups.

The divergent approaches are being exposed as authorities study the behavior of the Malaysian Air cockpit crew, pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah and co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid, for clues about their mental state, including whether suicide may be to blame for the March 8 disappearance of Flight 370.

“This is so strange. Nothing fits. Nothing can be ruled out at this time before the flight data recorder is recovered,” said Guohua Li, director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention in New York.

Americans involved in training pilots say extensive psychological tests aren’t necessary in the world’s largest aviation market because U.S. airlines tend to hire accomplished military pilots or civilians with thousands of hours of experience who have proved their mettle in commuter planes.

Lengthy flight experience weeds out potentially unstable recruits before they reach a jetliner cockpit, they say.

“It’s very intense to go through all of that training to get those high-level qualifications,” said Ken Byrnes, chairman of the flight training department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. “If there are any issues, they would crop up.”

Like the Federal Aviation Administration, the European Aviation Safety Authority doesn’t require routine mental fitness tests. Such assessments can be ordered if examiners find cause for concern during periodic physicals that include a discussion of mental well-being, according to the agencies’ guidelines.

Relying on tests

Airlines outside the U.S., facing the financial burden of paying for the training of new hires, want to “give them a battery of aptitude tests and psychological testing to see if they want to make the investment in that individual,” said Byrnes.

South Korea and Singapore require personality assessments when a pilot is hired. South Korean carriers use a 350-question personality review and “continuously” assess pilots individually and in groups, with reviews extending to family members, said Kwon Yong-bok, director general of the Aviation Safety Policy Office Of Civil Aviation.

Asiana Airlines, South Korea’s second-biggest carrier, makes personality assessments on pilots and cabin crew each year when they take annual physical checkups, said Lee Hyo-min, a spokeswoman. Crew members must answer a list of government-required questions, she said.

Malaysian Air may change its required psychological examinations for pilots after Flight 370’s disappearance, Chief Executive Officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said.

“Going forward, we will look into all this and see whether we can strengthen, tighten all the various entry requirements and examinations,” he said.

Aviation Safety Network, which tracks accident data, has identified five crashes killing 422 people since 1982 that were caused by intentional actions by airline pilots. Those cases involved EgyptAir Airlines, SilkAir Singapore, Royal Air Maroc, Japan Airlines and LAM Mozambique Airlines.

Most pilot suicides occur in general aviation, where planes are small and more accessible and regulations less extensive, said Jurek Grabowski, who was part of a suicide-by-aircraft study at Johns Hopkins University in 2005.

A potential shortfall of tests relying on self-disclosure is that pilots can lie about mental health problems, although doing so can risk fines and the loss of required medical certification.

“If they don’t want to tell you, they won’t tell you,” said Ian Cheng, a physician in Sydney and president of the Australasian Society of Aerospace Medicine. “When they present for a medical, their goal is to pass the medical.”

Going further

Airlines can supplement required physical assessments with their own evaluations or tests. United Continental Holdings, the world’s second-largest carrier by passenger traffic, has pilot applicants take a personality evaluation, said Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman. She declined to comment further.

Southwest Airlines, the largest discount carrier, uses an aircraft cockpit trainer exercise to observe an applicant’s decision-making and problem-solving skills in a stressful environment.

The continual scrutiny under which pilots operate still may not turn up evidence of troubling behavior until it bursts into the open.

In 2012, a JetBlue Airways Corp. captain was locked out of the flight deck and subdued by passengers after pounding on the cockpit door, shouting and praying aloud. He was later found not guilty by reason of insanity of interfering with his flight crew.

Deutsche Lufthansa, Europe’s second-largest airline, runs an in-house pilot-training academy with 120 slots each year, for which it gets about 3,000 applications. Successful graduates undergo a formal physical examination, as well as behavior-oriented personality assessments monitored by psychologists and flight captains.

To promote disclosure and reduce stigma around mental health, Australia allows pilots to continue flying if they are on antidepressants and meet certain criteria, whereas most other regulatory authorities ground them until they’re better, said Gordon Cable, who provides aviation medical services and conducts pilot medical exams in Adelaide, South Australia.

Stigma will drive anyone to hide the signs and symptoms of mental illness, “but pilots particularly, because they would be afraid of being grounded,” Cable said. “They have their job at stake.”