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Helen Davey

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Cracks in the Cover-Up

Posted: 04/13/2012 11:29 am

The recent very public emotional meltdown of a JetBlue pilot -- just weeks after an American Airlines flight attendant broke down in front of passengers waiting for take-off -- has many people wondering about the psychological health of pilots and flight attendants. What is going on with the employees in our airline industry?

As a former Pan Am flight attendant for 20 years, and now a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst for 25 more, I've been writing at length to sound the alarm about the decline of the American airline industry. In particular, I've discussed the traumatic emotional consequences to employees due to the massive changes they've had to endure.

In addition to ensuring the safety of passengers, pilots and flight attendants understand that their major role is to create the illusion of the flight crew's emotional invincibility. In other words, they reinforce the denial of death. This is what I mean by the words "cover-up." On board every aircraft are passengers who wonder how in the world this huge machine can actually fly. Moreover, they depend upon the comfort of knowing they have a fearless and confident crew taking care of them. Not always an easy task for the flight crew.

Having been a flight attendant, I know how psychologically stressful that job can be. Even in the glory days of American aviation, when all employees got to share in the largesse of the industry's perks, the emotional demands of the work could be grueling. Maintaining an outward persona of friendliness, calm, and utter fearlessness for countless hours on end can be very difficult indeed.

Pilots have a particular problem in this arena, especially when it comes to seeking help. Due to antiquated 1940's FAA standards, it's very difficult, if not impossible, to get help for psychological distress. For example, given that statistics show that at least 10% of the population suffers depression at some time in their life -- and I think that number is vastly underestimated -- then what are pilots to do?

In 2010, four anti-depressants were approved by the FAA for pilot use, but he or she must be grounded for at least six months (usually a year), and subjected to constant re-evaluation for the rest of his or her career. I understand the flying public doesn't want to hear or think about this, but restrictive and sometimes punitive measures discourage pilots from seeking the help they need, even for "talk therapy." This creates an atmosphere of shame about needing emotional help, and is paralleled by the shame that so often accompanies combat-related trauma.

Despite the herculean efforts by EAP programs in unions and airlines to get proper help for vulnerable crew members before their behavior explodes into headlines, some people slip through the cracks. I personally would much rather put my life in the hands of a pilot who has received proper psychological treatment than one who suffers silently but has a "clean" record.

A salient factor that has been left out of media reports and pundit observations about the pilot and flight attendant incidents, is that what they have in common was that both employees began ranting about terrorism. In fact, the flight attendant screamed about having a friend killed in the 9/11 terrorist hijacking of an American Airlines plane, as well as about the recent bankruptcy of her company.

When you see airline crews walking across the terminal with their suitcase on wheels, just know that they are also carrying another kind of baggage. There is always the possibility of a hijacking, a bomb on the plane, or unruly and violent passengers on board. Most people who go about their daily lives and work don't have to be hyper-vigilant about terrorists. They have not had friends or colleagues murdered by political/religious extremists. They don't have to imagine ways in which they can protect their own lives and those who depend upon them in the air. Nor are they plagued by nightmares about getting stuck on another continent with no way to get home.

The "cover-up" of their vulnerability by pilots and flight attendants with a facade of emotional invincibility used to be all about the reality of occasional airline catastrophes, but it has now been extended to the nightmare of worldwide terrorism that is often aimed at airlines. Cracks in the "cover-up" are beginning to show.

There are many reasons for that, and one only has to look at the strained relationships between airline management and employees to understand what's happening. Not only are employees feeling attacked from the outside, but they are feeling equally attacked from the inside by their own companies as well. The executive hierarchy of airlines has changed dramatically, and we are long past the glory days of aviation when men like Juan Trippe led the way, and airline employees were all imbued with a passion for flying.

Long-promised wages, benefits, and pensions are being slashed, and flight attendants are increasingly on the front lines of an angry and disgruntled public with no tools to offer the public for passenger comfort. Mergers and takeovers and bankruptcies are forcing airline employees to adapt to a new and unfamiliar workforce in which many feel like the ugly, unwanted step-siblings in a blended family.

And on top of all these issues, there have always been expectable hardships for airline personnel that come with the job, requiring a stable, flexible person who is physically strong. Passengers take this for granted.

Working conditions have worsened to the point that along with emotional invincibility, physical invincibility is being demanded as well. Extremely long workdays, constant time changes, irregular schedules, and the feeling that their companies don't have their backs, are wearing down the employees to an extent I have not seen before. After all, no human being ever "gets used to" jet lag, exhaustion, sleepless nights, or the feeling of not being valued.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, similar things are happening to employees in other venerable old companies and industries in the past few years. In the wake of the recent economic turmoil, traditional emphasis on pride in one's company and loyalty to it is being replaced by concern only for profit. This has had a shattering impact on the emotional lives of many people.

And nowhere is this more apparent than in the current state of the airline industry. As long as it stays in denial about this massive undermining from within, we're going to see more cracks in the cover-up. Another airline employee succumbing to the pressure, captured on tape and broadcast tonight on your evening news!