Germanwings Crash: Should pilots surrender medical records?

Germanwings Crash: Should pilots surrender medical records? (Image 1)
Germanwings Crash: Should pilots surrender medical records? (Image 1) (Copyright by WSLS - All rights reserved)

(NBC NEWS) - The apparently deliberate crashing of a packed Germanwings jet by a pilot who had 

previously experienced suicidal tendencies

 has triggered debate about whether airlines should get access to the medical history of their employees.

Andreas Lubitz, 27, who suffered episodes of severe depression during his brief career, had been excused from work by doctors for an unspecified illness on the day of the crash — a fact he appears to have concealed from the airline, according to prosecutors.

Cockpit voice recordings suggest the firstiOfficer deliberately crashed Flight 4U9525 into the French Alps on March 24, killing all 149 others on board.

The crash has thrown a spotlight on the opaque world of mental health screening for pilots, who face regular physical testing but are often expected to self-declare illnesses such as addiction or depression.

German lawmaker Dick Fischer, transport spokesman for Angela Merkel's CDU party, is calling for airlines to have mandatory access to the medical records of all pilots.

"In an employment contract … it should be defined that the pilot releases the company-mandated doctor for medical confidentiality," Fischer told the Rheinische Post.

U.S. pilot health screening, which has changed little in recent decades, is ripe for review according to Illinois-based aviation psychologist Diane Damos.

"Twenty or 30 years ago almost all of our civilian pilots with major airlines were ex-military so they went through a military selection process and had flown for years as military pilots," she told NBC News. "These people had been closely observed for a long period before they came to major airlines in the U.S. That is no longer true, particularly for regional airlines.

Damos added: "It's possible for somebody to go to their local airport and get their [certification] and then work as a flight instructor or cargo pilot and then they join a regional airline and that person is, in lot of ways, unknown. Because the change has been gradual, I don't think the airlines or the government have really thought through the difference."

However, many experts and pilot groups say surrendering medical privacy is unnecessary — and could even force any future cases reminiscent of Lubitz to stay under the radar.

"A knee-jerk reaction to the tragedy in the Alps is not appropriate, wise or necessary," former Airbus A320 captain John Cox told NBC News. "It would be a mistake, a large mistake, to dramatically change the existing process until a careful review, discussion, and evaluation is undertaken."

He added: "It is not a simple case of a doctor picking up the phone can calling the airline. There is nothing simple about the process whereby a doctor violates a patient's confidence, or the subjectivity involved."

There is no global consistency across the aviation industry for dealing with pilot health certification.