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Does the U.S. need to change its mental health screening process for pilots?

According to Lufthansa, the co-pilot who crashed a Germanwings flight into the French Alps had informed the company of severe depression in 2009. Judy Woodruff talks to Dr. Warren Silberman, a former FAA medical certification manager, and Dr. William Hurt Sledge of Yale University about the current psychological screening process and standards for U.S. pilots.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    There are even more questions today about how pilots are screened.

    Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings, reported the co-pilot of the plane that crashed in the French Alps last week informed the company back in 2009 that he had suffered from severe depression. Andreas Lubitz told the flight training school of the problem after a months-long absence.

    The incident raises concerns about mental health and standards for flying.

    We speak with two now who know about these issues. Dr. Warren Silberman is a physician and former manager of aerospace medical certification for the Federal Aviation Administration. He is now in private practice. And Dr. William Sledge is a professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine. He's evaluated pilots throughout his career, including for the Air Force, for major airlines, for the pilots union and the FAA.

    And we welcome you both.

    Dr. Silberman, to you first.

    We know the information we have on Andreas Lubitz is incomplete, but, based on what we know, would he have been certified to fly a passenger plane in the United States?

  • DR. WARREN SILBERMAN, Former FAA Medical Certification Manager:

    With — if he would have revealed that he was depressed or showed manifestations of depression, absolutely not. He would be disqualified.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Dr. Sledge, would you agree?

  • DR. WILLIAM SLEDGE, Yale University:

    I would agree, particularly with the designation that he was suicidal.

    And Dr. Silberman knows better than I, but the FAA occasionally would — if someone was treated successfully for depression, would allow them to return to the cockpit, but, for the most part, the presence of suicidality really rules it out.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, Dr. Sledge, staying with you, what is the U.S. system for screening pilots for physical, mental and emotional conditions?

  • DR. WILLIAM SLEDGE:

    Well, to get a license to fly, you have to have a medical exam that certifies you in different categories of how you will be flying.

    The first-class category is what we were talking about here. Those are for people who are carrying passengers commercially. And all the major trunk carriers are, by license, required to have a class one. That's an annual physical up until you're age 40, and then it's twice a year.

    And the content of the evaluations are similar, although they're a little bit more strict for the first class, and they're pursued more aggressively by the aeromedical examiners, who are the primary care physicians who are certified by the FAA to carry out these exams.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Dr. Silberman, what would you add to that, and especially when it comes to mental health and emotional screening?

  • DR. WARREN SILBERMAN:

    Well, you know, if — the good thing is when you know the pilot and he's been seeing you.

    The other problem is when you have got a brand-new student pilot. But the FAA's got a whole bunch of questions that are on the medical history. One question relates just to overall mental health. And it says, have you ever had depression or anxiety or something else?

    Another question relates to alcoholism. Have you ever had a problem with alcohol? A third question asks if you had substance dependence, where you have taken a substance within the last two years. And then the next — the last question asks about suicide.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Dr. Sledge, it sounds as if so much of this depends on self-reporting. Is that right? And what about the role of co-workers, colleagues who are observing pilots every day?

  • DR. WILLIAM SLEDGE:

    Well, yes, a lot of it does depend on self-reporting.

    But, of course, many of the items that Dr. Silberman mentioned can also be verified by law enforcement or job evaluations, et cetera. But in terms of the — most pilots are pretty tolerant of people, but they're not tolerant of people who are non-standard in the carrying out of their work functions. And if someone is consistently violating the rules and the regulations of flying, those people will get reported pretty quickly, in my experience.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Yes, I want to ask both of you.

    Dr. Silberman, do you think the regulations right now in the United States are sufficient? Do they need tightening in some way, given what we have seen with this terrible incident in France?

  • DR. WARREN SILBERMAN:

    Ms. Woodruff, it's actually an interesting thing, because back in — when that pilot on JetBlue had a psychotic reaction — that was March 27 of 2012 — we, the members of the Aerospace Medical Association, which is the largest organization of aerospace medicine specialists, got together and had a working group to decide, is the exam — are we missing something on the exam?

    And we came up that, since something like that is so rare that you don't want to put your money on that, and it's better to put the emphasis on mental health education, education at the airline, that kind of stuff.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Dr. Sledge, very quickly, would you agree that no major changes are needed?

  • DR. WILLIAM SLEDGE:

    I agree.

    And I think one of the things that's been left out of this conversation is the tight collaboration and coordination between the major trunk carriers, the FAA and the Airline Pilots Association, who are really quite together in maintaining safety and healthy clientele.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    A just final quick question to both of you. Should Americans for the most part feel confident when they get on a plane and fly in this country.

    Dr. Silberman?

  • DR. WARREN SILBERMAN:

    Hey, I — with all the years that I was at the FAA and the stuff that I still do with pilots, I feel totally comfortable flying in the U.S.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And Dr. Sledge?

  • DR. WILLIAM SLEDGE:

    I would agree.

    But I would also add that, when something like this happens, we should stop and pause and just recheck and make sure that we're doing the best we can. But I completely agree. This doesn't change my confidence in the system.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Dr. William Sledge, Dr. Warren Silberman, we thank you both.

  • DR. WILLIAM SLEDGE:

    You're welcome.

  • DR. WARREN SILBERMAN:

    Thank you.

  • DR. WILLIAM SLEDGE:

    Thank you.

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