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JetBlue pilot: Are some jobs too stressful?

JetBlue pilot behavior refocuses attention on workplace stress. JetBlue pilot had given no previous indication of trouble, but aviation has seen bizarre outbursts lately.

By Diane StaffordMcClatchy Newspapers / March 29, 2012

Authorities board JetBlue flight 191, which was headed from New York to Las Vegas, after an emergency landing at Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport in Amarillo, Texas, Tuesday, when an unruly JetBlue pilot caused the flight to be diverted. The incident has refocused attention on high-stress jobs.

Roberto Rodriguez/The Amarillo Globe News/AP


After a few workplace violence events in mail centers, "going postal" entered the lexicon.

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This week, thanks to a widely shared newspaper headline about the in-flight meltdown of a JetBlue pilot, we got, "This is your captain freaking."

Though not particularly fair or nice, the shorthand descriptions of workplace outbursts are here to stay.

Even if such violent incidents are exceedingly rare, the ever-present threat remains. And because the most recent threat happened in a jet hurtling across the sky, it ramped up public concern:

What to do when the captain leaves the controls and starts ranting in the aisle of the plane after the co-pilot locks him out of the cockpit?

The only recourse at the moment is to do what the crew and passengers did on a Tuesday flight from New York City: Subdue him and land the plane.

A co-pilot and another pilot who happened to be a passenger took the controls and made an emergency landing in Amarillo, Texas, where the pilot was handed over to medical authorities.

In any incident like that, after the emergency response it's time to take another look at the broad topics of employee mental health and fitness-for-duty assessments.

JetBlue, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Safety Administration are looking into the details and background of the captain, identified as Clayton Osbon, an employee who previously gave "no indication" of trouble.

JetBlue chief executive Dave Barger said Osbon was a "consummate professional." But he has been relieved of flying duty and on Wednesday was criminally charged with interfering with the flight crew, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.

Meanwhile, the scary event put a magnifying glass on high-stress work environments, which can occur in any industry but have been most recently highlighted in aviation and military jobs.

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales last week was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder for killing 17 civilians in two southern Afghanistan villages earlier in March. Some observers suggested he snapped in response to the stress of repeated active-duty deployments in a war zone.

For JetBlue, the captain was the second worker to make the news for erratic behavior. In August 2010, a flight attendant popped a beer, deployed an inflatable emergency chute and slid from the aircraft after an on-ground dispute with a passenger.

American Airlines also had a recent incident. On March 9, a flight attendant was removed from a plane in Dallas when she began ranting about 9/11 and plane safety.

The incidents were commonly described as reactions to continuing job stress.

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