Pilot pressure: Ground realities of flying

  • Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Apr 08, 2015 01:34 IST

Two pilots reportedly get into a brawl on Air India’s Jaipur-Delhi flight on April 5. Air India denies there was an altercation but takes them off the roster pending an investigation.

While the causes of this incident are unknown, it prompts concerns about the effects of stress on professionals in the aviation sector. This issue has received attention after it emerged that the Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz, who crashed his plane into a mountainside recently killing 149 people, had a history of depression.

The Germanwings crash has revealed that the aviation industry worldwide has taken the issue of psychological assessment rather lightly. As reported by Bloomberg, the International Civil Aviation Authority has not established psychological safety tests for pilots, dismissing them as ‘rarely of value’. Countries, including India, establish their own standards of psychological testing; in most cases there are tests at the training and induction stage.

Pilots are subject to regular physical tests when on the job but their mental well-being is glossed over, often taking their own perceptions at face value rather than testing them rigorously. Pilots in budget airlines are particularly at risk owing to cost-cutting and the little turnaround time they have at airports when traversing several routes daily.

Those flying in India would also be familiar with the frenetic pace that airline staff keeps under the pressure of turning over passengers and freight quickly. That airport infrastructure struggles to match increasing volumes of passenger traffic adds to the strain that professionals experience.

India has long established the two-members in the cockpit rule that some European airlines are now beginning to adopt as formal policy. The Indian government reportedly plans to issue new guidelines for psychological assessment of pilots.

This is welcome and should be acted on speedily. Pilots reportedly do not acknowledge stress levels for fear of losing jobs and benefits or facing arduous bureaucratic processes.

The new guidelines should be sensitive to such concerns and address wider structural issues like pay and working conditions, which have a strong bearing on stress levels.

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