FAA’s Pilot Mental Health ARC
Like many, if not most, aviation tragedies, there is an immediate and overwrought response to the reported horrific “facts.” The Germanwings suicide flight is a quintessential example of that phenomenon. The prescriptions propounded by the “experts,” at that time, are now proof why taking the time to analyze the facts is the better course of action.
The FAA recognized that the expertise to design a continuous program for pilot mental health should involve a team of people with greater insight into and experience with this complex issue. The Administrator chartered an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) comprised of aviation and medical experts (see Appendix A of the ARC Report).
Having worked for a year with commercial airlines and pilots’ unions, the federal safety issued recommendations to improve mental health evaluations and to encourage voluntary reporting of pilot mental health issues. Here is the summary of their findings:
- “In January, the FAA began enhanced training for Aviation Medical Examiners so they can increase their knowledge on mental health and enhance their ability to identify warning signs.
- Airlines and unions will expand the use of pilot assistance programs. The FAA will support the development of these programs over the next year. These programs will be incorporated in the airline’s Safety Management Systems for identifying risk.
- The FAA will work with airlines over the next year as they develop programs to reduce the stigma around mental health issues by increasing awareness and promoting resources to help resolve mental health problems.
- The FAA will issue guidance to airlines to promote best practices about pilot support programs for mental health issues.
- The FAA will ask the Aerospace Medical Association to consider addressing the issue of professional reporting responsibilities on a national basis and to present a resolution to the American Medical Association. Reporting requirements currently vary by state and by licensing and specialty boards.”
The experts also commented that an:
“Certain medical conditions, such as a psychosis, bipolar disorder and severe personality disorder automatically disqualify a pilot from obtaining an FAA medical certificate and prohibit them from flying. However, many pilots have conditions that are treatable. Several U.S. airlines already have reporting and monitoring programs that provide pilots with a path to report their condition, be treated for it and return to the cockpit once the FAA has determined – through a thorough evaluation – it is safe to do so. The FAA addresses the medical certificates of those pilots on a case-by-case basis.”
An informative Fact Sheet added more technical and regulatory implications of the ARC’s work.
One of the instant solutions proposed in response to Germanwings was introduced by U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA) in a release calling for even further action. “As the House acts to clear the way for a bipartisan, long-term FAA reauthorization, it is imperative that that legislation include language mandating the installation of secondary cockpit barriers on board commercial airliners,” Fitzpatrick said. These low-cost, lightweight additions would provide a much needed layered security option for the flight deck, protecting it from anyone attempting to hijack a plane. He urged that his earlier introduced H.R. 911 be included in the 2016 FAA Reauthorization bill.
Here is how the ARC responded to a secondary cockpit barrier:
“Procedures Used For Opening/Closing the Hardened Cockpit Door During Manual Operation. The working group discussed various OEM guidance and flight manual information on flightdeck door/design during manual operation. This is defined as the use by flightdeck personnel to open and close the hardened door using the door handle and latching of manual bar/latches/strike plates. The working group is satisfied that these procedures are safe and reliable and no modifications are necessary. The group notes aircraft operators should continually verify they have documented policies and procedures in place. The working group discussed the issue of flightdeck door secondary barriers. The group is satisfied that these procedures are safe and reliable in existing installations, and no modifications to procedures are necessary. Additional commentary on the construction and performance of secondary barriers was referred to the Aircraft Design Work Group”
It is very natural for the public to demand that a “fix” be immediately implemented in response to all aviation accidents. This tendency is exacerbated by the current societal expectation that all problems, not just limited to aviation, must be fixed instantaneously. This ARC’s careful consideration of this complex issue has demonstrated the value of patience or putting it in the colloquial “thinking before jumping.” The end result of the work of this Blue Ribbon group is a list of recommendations which will minimize the risk of pilot mental health issues in future flights.