SEPANG - Airlines should place emphasis on their flight crew's mental fitness to ensure level-headedness at all times.
Malaysian Pilots' Association vice-president Captain Ab Manan Mansor said with the excessive workload and erratic timing demanded by their jobs, psychological tests should be conducted more often on the crew, as they led antisocial lives.
His comments came in the wake of a possible psychological problem experienced by the crew aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which might have led to the deliberate air turnback of the plane.
"Most pilots and crew lead lonely lives.
"They often have pent-up problems and rarely get to meet friends and family.
"Mental checks are conducted during medical check-ups once or twice a year.
"This is not enough," said the veteran, who has 48 years' experience in the aviation industry.
Manan said depression among pilots was getting increasingly common, as they had little time to socialise.
"Some pilots are overworked and burned out. Plus, the retirement age for some is now 60, when it used to be 55."
He said airlines should send their crew, including pilots, for refresher courses on crew management.
"As part of aviation education, all crew members have been taught about crew relationship management. It is a must-pass subject.
"Perhaps, a refresher course could reinstate the esprit de corps among crew members."
A retired Royal Malaysian Air Force pilot told the New Straits Times that most pilots were overworked, with many exceeding the limit on flying hours set by aviation authorities.
"Some airlines offer incentives if the pilots did overtime and flew more sectors. But, the pilots do not understand that the stress will take a toll on their lives."
He recalled an incident in 1996, when a young pilot crashed a Fokker airplane with 50 on board.
The pilot was said to be suffering from fatigue and had domestic issues.
"The pilot fraternity then knew he had had problems with his wife.
"The next thing you know, he nosedived the aircraft in the middle of the runway. It was kamikaze."
He said in the air force, there were many cases of pilots who had gone crazy because they were overworked and did not have much social interaction.
"Now, commercial pilots are flying more than 90 hours per month.
"This is staggering, looking at the sectors that they cover.
"This reminds me of the case where a helicopter went down in Genting in 1985.
"It was widely seen as the pilot's error, but we all knew that he had a psychological problem."
A pilot with a European airliner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said flying provided the best job satisfaction and many opportunities to lead a sociable life.
"I have friends from all over the world and I often take long breaks. So, I am rarely stressed out."