March 31, 2015 – 7:49AM
Australian pilots for major airlines have loss-of-licence insurance that can pay out up to nearly $1 million in the event they are deemed medically unfit to fly, but pilots say past disputes over payouts in the case of psychiatric conditions such as depression could make them less likely to be honest about their condition.
Germanwings First Officer Andreas Lubitz, who is alleged to have purposely crashed an A320 in the French Alps last week killing all 150 on board, had reportedly been treated for depression. The crash has led to a renewed focus on the issue of pilot mental health in a profession where reporting depression can lead to a temporary grounding at best and at worst the loss of a pilot’s licence.
Australian and International Pilots Association president Nathan Safe, whose union represents Qantas and Jetstar pilots, said there was not usually any consternation about eligibility for payouts if the cause was a physical illness, but mental health issues were sometimes treated differently under the Qantas-provided policy.
“We have had issues in the past of having arguments about whether people are eligible,” he said. “It is an example of something we need to talk about. If people are worried they are not going to be paid out if they come forward with mental health issues they are perhaps more likely to stay at work, which is not what we want with people with mental health issues.”
The size of the payout depends on the age of the pilot and the insurance plan but for young pilots the Qantas insurance plan would provide nearly $1 million.
“The main point of it is to recognise if you can no longer fly you need to set yourself in a new career path,” Mr Safe said. “You might have to go back to uni and do something else.”
Qantas’s loss of licence insurance policy excludes payouts in the case of “psychosis or psychoneurosis”, in what is considered dated terminology from the 1960s and compares with more modern terms used in other policies on the market.
In 2012, Qantas pushed to replace it with “psychosis, generalised anxiety, dissociation, unintentional conversion of psychological factors to physical symptoms, phobias, obsessions and compulsions and depression” as described in the latest American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
In a 2013 ruling, the Fair Work Commission denied Qantas’s request to change the terminology, saying it could result in the airline excluding payouts in the case of depression, even though the airline provided evidence it had made payouts for some depression cases in the past. Sources said despite the ruling, there was at least one dispute over an insurance payout related to depression that was ongoing.
Pilots can also take out income protection insurance, although that is not paid for by their employers.
Virgin Australia Holdings reimburses pilots for the cost of licence insurance cover, either through the company or two unions that represent Virgin pilots. The Australian Federation of Air Pilots policy excludes payouts in the case of intentional self-injury, attempted suicide or drug and alcohol dependency but does not mention depression. The Virgin Independent Pilots Association, which has a fixed $810,000 payout for pilots up to age 65, also excludes intentional self-injury.
Separately, Jetstar pilots on Monday approved a new enterprise bargaining agreement including an 18-month pay freeze, with 73.6 per cent in favour and 26.4 per cent against. In December, 95 per cent of Jetstar pilots had voted against a first proposal, but changes were made that satisfied the majority of pilots.
The Sydney Moning Herald