More join JetBlue suit over pilot's breakdown

Some passengers from the JetBlue flight on which a pilot had to be subdued after yelling threats join their attorneys to discuss the progress of the lawsuit against JetBlue and what they hope to accomplish. Videojournalist: Jim Staubitser (Aug. 10, 2012)

Some passengers from the JetBlue flight on which a pilot had to be subdued after yelling threats join their attorneys to discuss the progress of the lawsuit against JetBlue and what they hope to accomplish. Videojournalist: Jim Staubitser (Aug. 10, 2012)

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Another 20 JetBlue Airways passengers, including several from Long Island, have joined a lawsuit filed against the airline over a pilot's midair breakdown in March, saying the industry and regulators need to do a better job of medical screening.

The number of plaintiffs in the civil complaint has grown to 32, with 12 from Long Island, said Steve Epstein, the Garden City attorney who filed the lawsuit in June.

Some of the new plaintiffs said they joined the lawsuit because the pilot's frightening behavior on Flight 191 from Kennedy Airport to Las Vegas makes clear that medical screening needs to include mental as well as physical health.

JetBlue "should have been able to know that this guy [the pilot] was not stable enough to be flying that plane," said Michael Bedzinger, 48, of Commack, who was one of the 135 passengers on the plane that had to land in Amarillo, Texas.

The airline does not comment on pending litigation, JetBlue spokesman Mateo Lleras said. Representatives of the Airline Pilots Association and the Air Transport Association declined to comment on the issue of medical exams.

The pilot, Capt. Clayton Osbon, 49, of Richmond Hill, Ga., missed a preflight meeting with crew members and started acting strangely soon after the plane took off. "We're not going to Vegas," Osbon said to his co-pilot, the FBI said.

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Osbon's behavior became more erratic as the flight continued, according to FBI reports. He ran up and down the passenger cabin aisle and was locked out of the cockpit. Passengers helped attendants restrain him.

"Pray . . . now for Jesus," Osbon yelled.

The FBI in Amarillo charged Osbon with interfering with a flight crew. In July, a federal court judge found Osbon not guilty by reason of insanity. He remains in custody awaiting an Oct. 15 hearing on whether he should be freed or held in a mental health facility.


Fatigue dismissed

Osbon did not fly the weekend before Flight 191, and had a total of 17 hours off before the flight, so work-related fatigue shouldn't have been a factor in his distress, Lleras said.

Marshall Brooks, 61, of New Hyde Park, sat in row 18 on Flight 191 when Osbon's breakdown occurred. The experience was "harrowing," he said, but something the airline should have been able to prevent.

"The system needs to be addressed," said Brooks, who has joined the lawsuit. "This man [Osbon] didn't show up for his preflight [meeting]. He acted erratically before the plane took off and nothing was done to stop him."

If a pilot misses a preflight meeting, he or she shouldn't be allowed to fly, the group of passengers said. The FAA has no such requirement.

Pilots younger than 40 are required to undergo a medical examination once a year. Those older than 40 must get a medical checkup every six months, according to FAA regulations. JetBlue is "fully compliant with the FAA mandate" requiring medical exams, Lleras said. FAA records indicate Osbon passed his medical exam in December 2011, three months before his breakdown on Flight 191.

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About 3,500 examiners conduct about 380,000 exams of commercial and private pilots per year, according to the FAA, with 380 to 570 denied or disqualified.

Physicians who conduct the medical exams and approve pilots for flight are not expected to undertake a psychiatric examination, according to the FAA Guide for Medical Examiners. But those doctors should "form a general impression of the emotional stability and mental state of the applicant," including through casual conversation.

Government regulators should require a more detailed inquiry into a pilot's mental health, if not a full psychiatric examination, Epstein said.

"You want to be a pilot, you want to fly this many people, you want to risk the lives of this many people, you have got to answer those personal questions," Epstein said.

Manhasset cardiologist Michael K. Jason, an FAA medical examiner and a consultant to the agency's top medical official, said the system for evaluating pilots is "fair and functioning" but "no system is perfect."

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Rigid examination

During the exams, pilots must fill out a form that includes questions ranging from alcohol and drug use -- including antidepressants -- mental health issues and medications to how many tattoos the pilot has, Jason said.

"You are put through the paces of a whole rigid exam," said Jason, adding that a full psychiatric test would be too expensive and would be most likely to find few pilots unfit to fly.

While cases like Osbon's are rare, Jason said it should put medical examiners on notice. They "need to be more sensitive to the subtle signs of psychiatric issues and [drug or alcohol] abuse issues," he said.

Kathy Euler, 49, of Smithtown, was with group of employees from U.S. Lock Corp. in Brentwood on Flight 191. After witnessing Osbon's breakdown at 35,000 feet, Euler said she would never again feel comfortable on a flight.

"You'll never get on a plane again without thinking twice, without looking into the cockpit to look into the pilot's eyes, just to make sure he's OK," she said.

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