DALLAS — The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced a new committee that will propose revisions to pilot mental health regulations. This announcement comes just before the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) summit on the stigma surrounding mental health issues faced by pilots, which has been a persistent problem for the FAA.
The newly formed Mental Health Aviation Rulemaking Committee aims to provide recommendations to the FAA on how to identify and eliminate any remaining barriers that discourage pilots from reporting and seeking treatment for mental health concerns. The NTSB roundtable, scheduled for Wednesday, will bring together experts from the aviation and medical fields to discuss this issue.
NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy, who announced the summit first to CNN, has criticized the FAA’s pilot certification system as outdated and has voiced concerns about pilots feeling ashamed or discouraged from seeking help. The issue of pilot mental health gained significant attention in October 2023, when an off-duty pilot was charged with attempting to crash an Alaska Airlines flight. In his confession, the pilot mentioned sleep deprivation, drug use, and prolonged depression.
This incident highlighted the urgent need to address mental health concerns among pilots. Currently, pilots risk losing their jobs if they seek mental health care, and the FAA requires regular medical examinations and self-disclosure of mental disorders. This creates stigma and fear among pilots, resulting in many avoiding seeking necessary care.
The FAA has the authority to revoke a pilot’s medical certificate if significant mental health issues are discovered. The University of North Dakota’s research indicates that over half of pilots avoid seeking healthcare due to concerns about losing their certificates.
The FAA acknowledges the need for change and has set a deadline for the committee to submit recommendations by the end of March. The committee will also address the same issues for FAA air traffic controllers, as the agency faces staffing challenges in air traffic control.
Back in April of this year, Capt. Chris Smith penned an Op-Ed on the issue of mental health. In the post, he noted that incidents and accidents that could be attributed to degraded mental health were very rare. However, he believes such rarity is due to favorable laws of probability rather than the airline industry having developed robust mitigation measures. “Many regulators, unions, and airlines have decided to kick the issue into the long grass.”
Capt. Smith continued, “Perhaps this is due to a lingering fear that reform is tantamount to an embarrassing admission that not enough has been done. It has created a merry-go-round of recommendations passed from one entity to the next, rather than stakeholders taking direct accountability and implementing change.”
Let’s hope the recommendations from the FAA’s new pilot mental health committee don’t stay at the committee level.
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