Airline Groups Forging Mental Health Standards for Pilots

Spurred by plane crashes involving pilots suffering from mental health issues, airline groups and the Federal Aviation Administration are looking for solutions that encourage improved medical screening by doctors and increased self-reporting by pilots.

If an airline pilot is struggling with mental illness or is going through a difficult time, more than just the pilot may be in danger.

That possibility was tragically realized in March 2015, when Andreas Lubitz, the copilot of Germanwings Flight 9525, intentionally crashed the plane into a mountain, killing 144 passengers and six crew members. Prior to the crash, Lubitz consulted with numerous doctors and was recommended for treatment in a psychiatric hospital, but he kept his mental health issues and suicidal tendencies from his employer.

That tragedy was one of the main reasons a coalition of aviation stakeholders developed new training standards for doctors directly involved in assessing pilots. Last week, the Aviation Rulemaking Committee released recommendations that suggest improved mental health evaluations and push pilots to voluntarily report mental health issues. Its proposals were built from recommendations by trade groups, pilots’ unions, and the federal government.

“The report reflects the strong collaboration among airlines, airline employees, safety organizations and government that has made the U.S. aviation system the largest and safest aviation system in the world,” Billy Nolen, Airlines for America’s senior vice president of safety, security, and operations, said in an FAA news release [PDF].

One trade group in particular, the Aerospace Medical Association (AsMA), has been called on to assist in setting reporting standards for aviation doctors, which has included the presentation of a resolution to the American Medical Association.

In a September letter to Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta, AsMA President Kris M. Belland noted that the group favors stronger standards for targeting mental health issues.

“We recognize that there are no simple solutions, that testing for mental illness is not infallible, that some measures will take time without showing immediate effect, and that the risk of hazards in flying will never be zero, but we believe these implemented recommendations should help reduce the already low flight safety risk due to mental illness,” Belland wrote in the letter [PDF].

In comments last week, Huerta emphasized that although commercial pilots already “undergo vigorous and regular medical screening,” the aviation world could do more to better handle mental health disorders—many of which are treatable.

“We need to do more to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness in the aviation industry so pilots are more likely to self-report, get treated, and return to work,” Huerta said in the FAA’s news release.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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