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FAA Committee Targets Pilot And Air Traffic Controller Mental Health Stigma

The latest committee was formed after an a jump-seating pilot attempted to shut down engines of an Embraer E175 mid-flight.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has formed a Mental Health and Aviation Medical Clearances Rulemaking Committee (ARC), is now reviewing the recommendations provided by the committee in order to improve the current mental health situation in the industry.

Breaking down barriers

The FAA’s statement noted that the latest iteration of the committee has provided recommendations to break down barriers preventing pilots and air traffic controllers from reporting their mental health issues over their career concerns.

The recommendations highlighted that the ARC members, observers, and contributors came from different backgrounds, including aerospace medicine, psychiatric and psychological medical experts from the FAA Office of Aerospace Medicine (AAM), FAA Flight Standards Service (AFS), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), US aviation industry trade associations, pilot/controller representative organizations, academia, and international aviation industry associations and civil aviation authorities (CAAs).

Mental health stigmas

According to the ARC, the working groups addressed four main issues, including the FAA’s handling of mental health diagnoses, current mental health screening processes, barriers preventing pilots or controllers from reporting mental health issues, and education about pilot/controller mental health issues. The committee held three plenary meetings in the United States, with remote participants joining virtually.

The committee's foreword noted that pilots have to obtain and maintain an FAA medical certificate to operate aircraft, with pilots working in commercial airlines being employed under the condition that they have their medical certificate. Similarly, controllers have to have an FAA medical clearance to continue their work.

The FAA had already formed an ARC committee in 2015 after the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and Germanwings flight 4U9525 incidents. While investigators could not establish a probable cause for the former’s deviation from its planned flight path, the French Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety (Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses pour la sécurité de l'aviation civile, BEA) concluded that one of the causes of the latter accident was,

“[T]he co-pilot’s probable fear of losing his ability to fly as a professional pilot if he had reported his decrease in medical fitness to an AME[.]”

That committee concluded that one of the main factors why pilots or controllers could be discouraged from reporting about their mental health conditions is the stigma associated with mental health, the potential impact on one’s career, and the fear of financial hardship.

Latest recommendations

While the 2015 committee provided recommendations, and the FAA acted on them, including expanding coverage of mental health issues in training provided to Aviation Medical Examiners (AME) and encouraging peer support programs (PSP) organized by airlines and unions, the regulator admitted that “there remained much work to do,” as highlighted by a Department of Transportation (DoT) report in July 2023.

“The [DoT Office of the Inspector General (OIG) – ed. note] report found that although the FAA has comprehensive procedures to evaluate pilots’ psychological health, the FAA’s ability to mitigate safety risks is limited by pilots’ reluctance to disclose mental health conditions.”

The latest committee was formed after an Alaska Airlines pilot, who was seated in the jump seat of a Horizon Air Embraer E175, attempted to shut down the engines on a commercial flight between Seattle Paine Field International Airport (PAE) and San Francisco International Airport in October 2023.

As such, the latest iteration of ARC provided seven recommendations for the FAA, including creating a non-punitive pathway for disclosing mental health problems, revising and evaluating the requirements for reporting various mental health issues, and others.

This article originally appeared on Simple Flying

Image source: Chad Robertson Media | Shutterstock

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