I refer to the article “Danger and the mind of pilots” in The Saturday Paper by Martin McKenzie-Murray, of Saturday, 4th April 2015.
Thank you for the first thoughtful article in the mainstream media I’ve encountered so far on the issue of pilots and depression/suicide, outside of the professional journals of the aviation industry. It typifies the writing I’ve seen in The Saturday Paper, and justifies my subscription once again.
As a professional pilot with 25 years experience across three international airlines, I’ve watched with growing alarm as this issue has exploded across mainstream media pumped by the associated sensationalism of the Germanwings tragedy. From your article I received two messages. Firstly this issue is more complex than can be settled by the “Rule-Of-Two” that has been applied to the flight decks of Europe and Australia by the associated regulatory authorities; and that more crucially – it’s too important than to be dealt with by “being seen to do something” – rather than actually doing something. On both counts, Mr. McKenzie-Murray is exactly right.
I have no problem perse with the requirement for a cabin crew member to be on the flight deck while my co-pilot heads out for a biological break. I see this procedural change as an infinitesimal improvement in safety in that it goes a small way to covering off against the remote possibility of pilot incapacitation during the short periods of single pilot operations on a multi crew flight deck.
But let’s not pretend, as the regulatory authorities seem to be, that it is likely to have any impact on the intent of a depressed and/or suicidal individual determined to crash an aircraft. In order to achieve this, the cabin crew member would need advanced flight training – and would probably have to be sitting in the pilot’s seat to do so. A measure of self defense training would seem germane as well – and we are moving now from the sublime into the ridiculous when you consider that the (alleged) murder-suicide actions of the co-pilot on Egyptair 990 took place with a fully qualified Captain sitting next to him, who was unable to prevent that tragedy.
The cabin crew member is there now because the door is now locked and has been since September 11, 2001 – and we are now full circle back to where a measure taken to improve safety after a tragic accident/occurrence has unintended consequences on the future safety of aircraft flight operations. Sound familiar?
If we are to deal effectively with the mental state of our pilots on our flight decks, then we need a systemic solution. One that crosses the varied spectrum of airline operations – and across the various boundaries (geographical and otherwise) of international aviation. What good is it for the Australian Government to implement the Rule of Two when an Australian citizen can purchase a fare on any airline that comes through Australia?
While there are a number of areas worthy of attention ? to my mind the primary focus would have to be cost. The airline industry has consistently done what no industry (other than perhaps IT manufacturing) has done. Ticket prices are cheaper and cheaper (relatively) year upon year, and since the explosion of the “tourist” (economy) fares of the 70’s there are more people flying now, more cheaply than ever before. But what is the cost? The cost is, at least in part, Safety.
Contrary to the simplistic belief of the accountants – Safety is not a line that you cross; it’s buffer zone that is regularly veered into by both strategic decisions made at high level and day to day flight operations. It’s the emergency lane beside yours on the highway at night when you’re driving tired (without the demarkation bumps you hear and feel through your tyres) – a buffer zone that is of unknown depth into which entire complex systems and individual actions head away from the safest and usually more expensive course, down towards a moving goal post at the bottom of the safety buffer at which an incident or accident is likely. As a professional I know when an action veers away from the safest course of action, and my training tells me whether the known (positive) consequences of that action are worth the (sometimes unknown) potentially negative consequences. I may not know exactly how deep the safety buffer zone is for each decision I make, but I have a good awareness of depth based on experience and professional intelligence. This is an assessment of Risk – Probability and Consequence – and all pilots do it every day.
My industry experience tells me that the biggest single action that reduces this buffer zone is the imperative to continually reduce the cost of operation. No single action has reduced safety in our industry more than the reduction of cost. Less money from tickets to spend means less money spent on all areas of the operation – Training, Maintenance, Manpower, Logistical Support, everything.. The safety buffer zone is an easy and at times unintended target when the aircraft keep flying, and it’s too late to redress it when one of them stops flying.
At the bottom of the spending chain (shortly after logistical support and training costs) is pilot and cabin crew wages. At recent times in the USA we have seen documentaries about pilots living in caravans near the airport. One equivalent here in Australia is perhaps junior airline pilots driving Uber on their days off, attempting to bridge the gap between what they are paid and what they need to support young families while required to live near a capital city airport.
Historically as an international pilot and your roster includes several days away from your family several times a month; when the first 36 hours of your return is a period of time zone adjustment and rest (or not); when the 24 hours before you leave are disrupted in an attempt to prepare your rest pattern for duty – you are supposed to have the days off between at home with your family to recover some kind of normal life; and the salary commensurate to compensate for this out of kilter existence. At my first International Carrier (based in Hong Kong), the acknowledged divorce rate was near 90% – the pressures of this life on pilots and their families cannot be under-estimated.
I am now towards the top of my profession and consider myself adequately compensated for the exigencies of my profession; but the pilots coming decades after me who are earning 20% of my salary in a lower role requiring a supposed lower level of professional skill but a fundamentally similar lifestyle – and with young families – I don’t understand how they do it, and only barely understand why.
Unfortunately – Pilots love flying; we take pride in our skills and take genuine pleasure in accomplishing a job well. This is what keeps us in the industry – it’s certainly not the money or the supposed days off. That and the promise of a career which at time seems more and more nebulous. Meanwhile the cabin crew whom I take responsibility for, work behind my flight deck standing ready to remain in a burning aircraft to direct their passengers to safety – are working at times 150% of my roster, for less wages than my junior second officer.
I have been asking myself if my role and my industry is unique and deserves these special measures to ensure that the individual in charge of so many lives has been subject to thorough review. That certainly seems to be the view of the sensationalist prime time media.
Already I am reviewed yearly by a medical professional with whom I have a longstanding relationship. When we meet to complete my aviation medical, we anecdotally discuss our kids, our lives (professional and otherwise) and the discussion of the stresses associated is both implied and at times explicit. Once I turn 50 this will become a twice yearly discussion.
I am examined in the simulator over two 4 hour periods twice a year by another pilot who’s training is in the technical and non-technical assessment of piloting skills. Another pilot rides with me on the “jump seat” on a normal line flight once per year to assess both the technical and non-technical skills of myself and my co-pilot. Both these individuals are intimately acquainted with the pressures of the professional and otherwise on pilots – they do it themselves – and they are aware of their responsibilities to assess the entire spectrum of airline operations as they come down to this single individual, operating this aircraft or simulator, on this day.
Every year I have ground based refresher training in Safety and Emergency Procedures, and every two years training in Security Procedures. I can be drug and alcohol tested at anytime associated with a duty, and have been. All of these contacts with qualified professionals are varied in the degree to which the related assessors could detect an alarming mental state. I am confident that in each case if they were alarmed by their perception of my mental state – it would be taken further.
Could I hide a mental illness problem from all these people – probably. Could you? Probably. Is any change other than a detailed review over a periods of days/weeks with a psychologist/psychiatrist likely over come this? Probably not.
In the role of assessment – I am a Check Captain and regularly train and assess both new and highly experienced pilots in simulators and aircraft – we in this industry use the following maxim when we render judgment on the pilots we both barely know or have a long standing relationship with : “Would I put my wife and kids on this pilot’s aircraft?”. This maxim is behind the pilots that assess me, the ground instructors who train me, and the Designated Medical Examiner who completes my yearly medical.
In my experience it can be exceedingly difficult to terminate the employment of a pilot who has professional (or otherwise) deficiencies – but it’s sure simple to ground one or in the very least subject them to more extensive professional review. The checks and balances in our system are comprehensive and long standing – they have to be when the potential results of deficiencies are so tragic and public. In 2014 the world’s airline accident rate was nearly 900 deaths, a threefold increase from the previous year and reversing a trend towards safe and safer aviation. 2014 was a bad year for Aviation, as everyone has seen in the media.
Now let’s look at the medical profession … please note I have no expertise in the medical area, the numbers I