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In-Flight Health: JetBlue Pilot Hits Breaking Point

Mar 28, 2012
Originally published on March 30, 2012 2:14 pm
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Now to the pilot for JetBlue who had to be subdued by passengers yesterday after he left the cockpit mid-flight and went on a rant, screaming about Iraq and Israel. JetBlue has suspended the pilot, identified as Clayton Osbon, and has called this a medical situation, which raises all kinds of questions about psychological screening of commercial airline pilots.

We're going to put those questions now to commercial pilot Patrick Smith. He writes the column Ask the Pilot for Salon.com. Welcome to the program.

PATRICK SMITH: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: I understand the pilots have screening, medical screening, once or twice a year. Does that also include psychological screening?

SMITH: Well, pilots undergo medical evaluation either once or twice a year, depending on if you're a captain, first officer and sometimes even which aircraft you're assigned to. The evaluation doesn't include a psychological exam per se. But the doctor, who is FAA-certified, certainly can make a subjective evaluation of any pilot's psychological makeup and go from there.

BLOCK: As a pilot, are you asked specifically in that screening: Are you seeing a therapist? Are you taking antidepressants, for example?

SMITH: Yes, you are asked those questions directly. And it is part of the form that you fill out every time you go for your annual or biannual evaluation.

BLOCK: I saw in a statement from the FAA about their policy, this phrase: We depend on the honesty of pilots, along with their friends and family and co-workers, to get pilots the help they need.

Does that seem sufficient to you? Does that seem like a reasonable approach?

SMITH: It's not a whole lot different from in any other profession and, indeed, safety-sensitive professions across the board. One issue I think that's important to raise here is, if for any reason a pilot becomes incapacitated, you know, there are always at least two fully qualified pilots on board if the captain is incapacitated.

You know, the first officer - the co-pilot, if you will - is not just an apprentice. Co-pilots perform as many takeoffs and landings as captains do, and they're qualified to fly the airplane in all regimes of flight.

BLOCK: I'm looking at the FAA policy on antidepressants, which changed a couple of years ago. And they are now allowing pilots to fly if they're taking four types of antidepressants. But as they begin that treatment, though, they're grounded for one year. And I wonder if that is a disincentive for people to self-report, to say I'm taking antidepressants, if they know they're not going to be able to fly for a year.

SMITH: I don't think so. I mean, I think airlines tend to be a lot more proactive about these sorts of things than people give them credit for. One corollary to this maybe is what's known as the HEMS program, which is a program where pilots who are having alcohol issues can voluntarily enter this program and get the situation straightened out. That program has a very, very good track record over the years.

And pilots aren't the type of people to play fast and loose with their careers. If there's a problem, you know, they're usually in the front and willing to address it up front, proactively, so that something bizarre doesn't occur.

BLOCK: Are the pilots that you've been talking with today talking about this story?

SMITH: Somewhat. I don't think it's nearly the story that the media wants it to be. But, yeah, it's come up over the past day and a half or so.

BLOCK: When you say the story that the media wants it to be, do you think we're over-inflating what happened here?

SMITH: I'm not surprised this story is in the news. It was an unusual incident. But I think the tendency is to extrapolate and to wonder if it means something more than it really means. And I don't think it does. I don't think of it as any more than a very unusual, isolated incident that we're not going to see again, frankly.

BLOCK: Well, Patrick Smith, thanks for talking to us today.

SMITH: Thank you.


BLOCK: One final note, federal prosecutors have now charged the JetBlue captain, Clayton Osbon, with interfering with a flight crew. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.