By Jeffrey Dastin
(Reuters) - Medical examiners who evaluate airline pilots have received more training in detecting mental health problems, U.S. regulators said on Thursday, after reviewing procedures in the wake of last year's deadly Germanwings crash caused by a co-pilot who suffered from severe depression.
The Federal Aviation Administration stopped short of calling for formal psychological tests on pilots. That step was recommended for new pilots in Europe after the March 2015 incident, in which a Germanwings plane crashed into the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board.
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The FAA said it will help airlines and unions expand support networks for pilots such as confidential hotlines, and integrate these into airlines' safety management programs.
The decisions, which followed recommendations by a government-industry task force, underscore the challenge of making pilots feel comfortable disclosing health issues, despite risking a required medical leave or an end to their careers.
"While some conditions automatically disqualify someone from flying, many pilots have treatable conditions," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a news release. "We need to do more to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness in the aviation industry so pilots are more likely to self-report, get treated, and return to work."
The FAA prohibits pilots from flying if they have bipolar disorder, severe personality disorder or certain other conditions.
The regulator said that it started extra training on mental health in January for medical examiners, who are designated to evaluate pilots' fitness every six to 12 months.
A November report by the U.S. task force found no statistical basis that psychological evaluations during the hiring process improved or hurt the quality of recruits.
"We are committed to maintaining the highest standards for pilot health, and this report will continue to help ensure the safety of our industry," said Joe DePete, first vice president and national safety coordinator of the Air Line Pilots Association International in the news release.
In addition to psychological testing, the European Aviation Safety Agency's task force last year recommended the introduction of random drug and alcohol testing, a policy already in place in the United States.
Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot, consulted a number of doctors as he wrestled with symptoms of a "psychotic depressive episode" that started in December 2014 and may have lasted until the March 24, 2015 crash, according to France's BEA air accident investigation agency.
(Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in New York; Additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris; Editing by David Gregorio and Steve Orlofsky)