Pay attention to pilots' mental health: UN urges

SINGAPORE - Pilots in Singapore are said to be prepared for new guidelines issued by the United Nations urging the civil aviation authorities to take more care of pilots' mental health.

The move aims to improve safety following a scare in the United States last year.

The captain of a JetBlue flight from New York to Las Vegas last March had to be tackled by passengers after he went berserk and ran down the aisles screaming about "terrorism" and "Al-Qaeda".

This prompted the Aerospace Medical Association (AsMA) to form a working group to review the issue of pilots' mental health.

Its findings and recommendations for more attention to be paid to the issue were supported by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the UN arm that oversees civil aviation.

In a recent circular, the ICAO said the need to ensure that pilots are mentally stable also comes in the wake of incidents caused by excessive drug and alcohol intake.

The message is timely, given rapid growth in the air-travel industry and the constant threat of terrorism that have added to work stress, aviation experts said.

Dr Philip Scarpa Jr, who led the AsMA's working group, told The Straits Times: "Improved detection and prevention of mental health conditions and life stresses can affect pilots and flight performance, and therefore aviation safety."

Pilot licensing guidelines are determined by a country's aviation regulator, but typically, cockpit crew have to undergo a medical assessment every six months or yearly, depending on their age. As part of the medical check-up, some regulators, including the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS), already put pilots through a psychiatric evaluation.

This is done through a questionnaire and interview session. About two years ago, the questionnaire was amended to incorporate questions aimed at determining a pilot's alcohol-consumption behaviour, a spokesman said.

The CAAS said it constantly monitors developments and trends and updates medical examiners on any issues of concern. "They have been encouraged to be more attentive to lifestyle and mental health issues," a CAAS spokesman said.

Captain Mok Hin Choon, president of the Air Line Pilots Association-Singapore (Alpa-S), said that within the union, there is a group of more than 20 experienced pilots whom younger or troubled colleagues can turn to for support.

"These are volunteers who are equipped with basic counselling skills to help fellow colleagues cope with work or other stresses. Because we are all in the same profession, we can understand the issues and concerns that may trouble our fellow colleagues."

He did not say how many pilots seek help in an average month, but that the number is "relatively small".

Capt Mok noted: "We have not come across pilots in crisis mode. Those who seek help usually just want someone to talk to, someone who can understand them."

A pilot for 35 years, Capt Mok added: "Flying is more stressful now than before. On one level, you have increasing stress from family, social and other demands that affects everyone.

"The operating environment has also become more stressful for pilots with growing air traffic, which also impacts rostering and work hours."

To ensure pilots get adequate rest, Singapore Airlines has launched an initiative to find out what causes fatigue so it can better plan rosters.

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