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France Proposes New Health Privacy Rules For Pilots


We are marking the anniversary of a tragedy today. One year ago, Andreas Lubitz, a co-pilot for the airline Germanwings, deliberately crashed a plane into the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board. French investigators said Lubitz had developed symptoms that, quote, "could result in a psychotic depressive episode."

Now in Europe and also in the United States, the system for tracking pilots' mental health still hinges on what's essentially an honor system - self-declaration, meaning pilots must willingly come forward if they suffer from a mental illness.

Diane Damos thinks a lot about this. She runs a company that screens pilots, and so she favors more of it. She says the current system puts pilots in a difficult spot. If they report any kind of condition, they could be grounded.

DIANE DAMOS: If I were an airline pilot and I thought I had some condition that might possibly ground me for life, how willing am I going to be to disclose that if I know it's going to be reported and I probably am going to lose my license?

GREENE: And for new pilots finishing flight school, Damos says there is pressure from looming debt.

DAMOS: Flight training is very expensive, so it's not unusual for somebody to graduate from fight training and be $125,000, $150,000 in debt just for that flight training. Then they're going to spend several years at very low-paying jobs while they build up their flight time to the point that they'll be an attractive candidate for a regional airline.

And even once they go to the regional airline, the first couple years their pay is going to be abysmal. So they have to look at that probability of being grounded versus their debt and how they're going to pay that off. So that's a very complex decision.

GREENE: Is there a role for doctors? I mean, presumably if someone is seeking help, might a doctor know that the patient is a pilot and might want to encourage him or her to do this self-reporting?

DAMOS: Well, that brings up an interesting point. There's no way, really, for that doctor to know unless the person tells them. Now I'd like to point out that our situation is radically different from Canada. In Canada, when you become a pilot you waive all rights to medical confidentiality from the time you were born up until the day that you turn in your license for the last time.

But that applies to doctors. And this is an interesting loophole because even in Canada, it's physicians and optometrists, so any other type of a mental health provider, such as a psychologist or counselor, is not required to report.

GREENE: Well, how worried should travelers be that there are people like Andreas Lubitz in that kind of pressure position, flying airplanes?

DAMOS: Well, his situation is very, very rare, and it's not something that I'm ever concerned about when I get on an airplane. But pilots are not the only people who have safety responsibility to passengers. So I think there is something that we should think about as a society that concerns safety occupations, and rather we should be dealing with the confidentiality issue for a variety of safety occupations, not just pilots.

GREENE: Diane, thanks very much for talking to us. We appreciate it.

DAMOS: You're most welcome.

GREENE: Diane Damos specializes in pilot selection and is the president of Damos Aviation Services. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.