I’ve struggled to find something meaningful to say about the incident when the captain of a jetBlue flight suffered from what appeared to be a “nervous breakdown,” resulting in his eventual restraint and later, criminal charges. I think criminal charges are wholly unwarranted and an example of the double-standard and prejudice we hold against people with possible mental health issues. It shows a shocking lack of judgment on the part of the U.S. prosecutors who charged Captain Clayton Osbon. (After all, would they have charged him if he had suffered a stroke instead, which led to similar behavior? I think not.)
But outside of this prejudice shown by people who don’t treat a brain attack like a heart attack, there’s very little more to say about this unfortunate incident. No lives were lost.
And, in fact, no lives have ever been lost due to a U.S. pilot’s mental health issues, according to the Washington Post article.
Sure, you could add more rigorous mental health screenings as a part of the annual medical exam commercial pilots are required to undergo, but it still wouldn’t have automatically caught something like what may have happened to Osbon — especially if it was a brief psychotic disorder (like the Kony 2012 director reportedly suffered).
Worse, if you make it a primary focus of attention in a medical exam, pilots — like soldiers, officers, and upper management of public companies — will learn that it is pretty easy to lie for such exams:
Regulators and doctors have wrestled with how to react to research showing commercial pilots underreport depression, Patrick Veillette, a corporate pilot who has written on the role of pilot health and safety, said in an interview. The stigma of having to admit they are suffering, combined with the threat of being taken off the job, leads many pilots to deny they are depressed, Veillette said.
Because all mental health screens and tests in use today rely on simple self-report to determine if you meet the criteria for a mental disorder. Lie about your symptoms and a professional would be hard pressed to tell otherwise. Unless pilots also underwent additional hours of psychological testing — a burden that would be onerous and lengthy, with no guarantee of “catching” a single pilot.
Furthermore, it seems short-sighted and bizarre that we would focus so much attention on a single form of public transportation — airplanes — when other forms, such as buses and trains, can cause nearly as much loss of life from the actions (or inactions) of its driver. (This is also an equally good point that one could apply to airline security — e.g., that we hold it to a ridiculous standard unmatched on buses or trains — but one seemingly lost on most of the American public.)
And that’s the point — you’re still at a far greater risk of getting hit by lightning than dying at the hands of an incompetent or “ill” U.S. pilot while flying. Some risks can be mitigated, but others we just have to live with.