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Screening Process For Pilots, Flight Attendants Questioned After Incidents

By Candice Leigh Helfand and William McGuinness
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File photo of American Airlines jets. (credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

File photo of American Airlines jets. (credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBSDC) — The nervous breakdowns of a pilot this week and a flight attendant earlier this month are raising new questions regarding in-flight safety nearly 13 years after a psychotic episode was believed to have taken down EgyptAir Flight 990.

The American Airlines flight attendant is believed to have bipolar disorder, while Clayton Osbon — the pilot aboard JetBlue Flight 191 — had what has been reported as a “medical situation” of an unknown origin.

In all incidents — except Flight 990 — passengers aboard the flight were able to subdue or restrain the individual.

Each made explicit mention of 9/11 and the attacks on America from terrorists who hijacked jet airliners and both appeared paranoid that their flight would crash. Instead of 9/11, however, the tragedy that was EgyptAir Flight 990 and the disputed fact that it crashed because an insane co-pilot brought it down could hold policy lessons for safer flights.

On the morning of Oct. 31, 1999, EgyptAir Flight 990, a Boeing 767 on its way from New York to Cairo, crashed shortly after takeoff 60 miles from Nantucket Island, Mass., killing all 217 people on board.

In March 2002, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the co-pilot, Gamil al-Batouti, deliberately manipulated the plane’s controls, causing it to crash. During the course of the investigation, Batouti’s motives were questioned, with some pilots saying he was emotionally unstable and unfit to be on board just hours before the plane departed.

In the United States, a captain’s medical certificate works as proof that the pilot is healthy. All pilots working for scheduled airlines must have a first-class medical certificate, renewed every six months to a year, depending on the pilot’s age. To receive the certificate, the pilot must receive a physical examination by a Federal Aviation Administration-designated medical examiner that includes questions about the pilot’s psychological condition. Pilots are required to disclose all physical and psychological conditions and medications.

An FAA spokesperson said it doesn’t require flight attendants to be screened for mental illness and psychological disorders as pilots are.

Screening for all employees on a flight’s chain of command would come at a high expense for an industry already hurting, and the screening line is drawn between those flying the plane and those servicing its passengers.

Corey Caldwell, spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants, told CBSDC that the standards to which flight attendants are held are strict even if they aren’t screened. She said the training involved to become a flight attendant is grueling, and would most likely expose any issues a person might have with handling the job mentally.

“It’s usually six to eight weeks long, and throughout this time, flight attendants are exposed to simulated real-life emergency situations. Once you pass training … you’re on probation for six months to a year, depending on the carrier,” she said. “If there’s an issue that would prohibit someone from performing their job function, there are ways for management to address that. It’s not like you walk in off the street, get hired, and they throw you up in a plane.”

Sheri Conaway, director of people for Southwest Airlines, said that applicants are evaluated during a multi-step process that starts with an online questionnaire and involves physical examinations and background checks.

When it comes to disabilities, physical or mental, Southwest does not actively seek out that information in potential employees.

“Unless they tell us they have a disability, we don’t ask for it,” Conaway told CBSDC.

Delta provides information in a pamphlet for flight attendants coping with on-the-job traumas, which has a section detailing when an employee should get help.

They list a series of what they call “red flag” symptoms, and assert that professional help may make the healing process easier. It also adds that if a flight attendant is harboring thoughts of harming oneself or others, death or suicide, that a “medical professional, clergy member, family member, trusted friend or [their] EAP” should be contacted immediately.

Caldwell added, “There’s a lot going on, and a lot at stake, and [flight attendants] take it very seriously.”

“What hasn’t been talked about was that this woman was a veteran flight attendant, and for over 20 years she had been performing her job,” Caldwell said. “It shows you how stressful the job is – we are adept at handling multiple emergency situations most people would never even dream of encountering.”

Calls made to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Air Force regarding their screening policies for potential and current employees alike were not immediately returned.

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