Aviation and mental health: Is real change on the horizon?

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For many pilots, flying is not just a job — it’s part of their identity. Sources within the aviation industry say it is incredibly common for pilots to fear losing their jobs, and subsequently, a core part of who they are.

The high-stress lifestyle of an average pilot can include countless nights in hotels, bad eating habits, working odd hours and a constant cloud of pressure to take on responsibility for the lives of hundreds of passengers on each flight. 

To find evidence of the impact an aviation lifestyle can have, look no further than a Fox News interview with American Airlines Captain Dennis Tajer.

MENTAL HEALTH IN AVIATION: PILOTS ARE SUFFERING IN SILENCE, AFRAID TO GET WINGS CLIPPED

The spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association, a pilot union for American Airlines, was not on the flight schedule the day of our interview but said he had flown the night before. 

Toward the end of the nearly 30-minute interview, he shared this: “I just flew last night, a couple errors caught by air traffic control, nothing that would make headlines, very standard. But each of us checking each other; we have to be rested and in good mental fitness condition. And … I’m losing my train of thought. I’m actually showing you what it’s like to fly after midnight and get up early.”

Airplane cockpit

Experts say anyone with a high-stress lifestyle can benefit from easy access to mental health help.

In the aviation industry, the FAA created a new Aviation Rulemaking Committee — or ARC. A panel of aviation and medical experts will make up the Mental Health and Aviation Medical Clearances ARC and provide recommendations on how the FAA can break down barriers to mental health for both pilots and air traffic controllers. 

FAA ESTABLISHES COMMITTEE TO ADDRESS MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES FOR PILOTS, AIR TRAFFIC CONTROLLERS

Dr. William Hoffman, a neurologist, former FAA Aviation Medical Examiner, and affiliated assistant professor of aviation at the University of North Dakota said, “What we’re really interested in is helping pilots with mild symptoms. These are pilots facing one of life’s usual stressors, perhaps a divorce or the high stress of quick operations temps that we’re seeing in the aerospace system.”

The root of pilots’ fear is traced back to self-reporting their mental health to the FAA.

While the federal agency has made strides to break down mental health barriers, sources in the industry say many pilots won’t get help because they believe if they do, they will lose their medical certificate — a requirement to fly. 

airplane flying by tower at sunset

“Structurally, it’s allowed. But the reality is, it’s not allowed. And the system that’s set up actually discourages people from getting help early,” said Capt. Tajer. 

The limited data backs it up. In a 2022 study, 56.1% of all pilots said they participated in “health care avoidance behavior” – avoiding getting help in one way or another. That included both mental health and physical health.

In a roundtable summit, the National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy addressed the growing concern. She said, “A system that shames and silences people can lead to unacceptable safety risks.”

One recent example is an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot. Officials say he tried to turn off both engines of a plane mid-flight. He claimed he was having a nervous breakdown and pleaded not guilty to related charges.

ALASKA AIRLINES OFF-DUTY PILOT PLEADS NOT GUILTY, TALKED MAGIC MUSHROOMS AFTER ALLEGEDLY TRYING TO CUT ENGINES

Dr. Hoffman said, “These individual episodes are a small piece of a broader story that are asking us to think hard about how we address these barriers in a meaningful way while maintaining aviation’s exceptional safety record.”

Experts suggest that a key factor contributing to pilots avoiding mental health help is the financial burden that comes with trying to regain their medical certification. 

“It can take thousands and thousands of dollars just to get the re-certification process going. And then the FAA system, which is set up to take six, 12, 18 months, you can get into this blanket of bureaucracy,” explained Capt. Tajer. 

Travelers look at a departures information board at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in San Francisco, California

Capt. Tajer and Dr. Hoffman, as well as other sources within the aviation industry, all agree that the new ARC created by the FAA is a great step forward. However, many are concerned it won’t lead to real change. 

“ARC means Aviation Rulemaking Committee. Sometimes it means ‘Ain’t Really Committed,’” said a serious Capt. Tajer. He went on to say, “They’re put together, they make recommendations, and oftentimes their recommendations just sit on a dusty shelf.”

When asked about the potential for a lack of action, the FAA referred Fox to a 2016 ARC on Pilot Fitness. It provided two examples of recommendations that were implemented: expanding training in mental health issues for AMEs and encouraging Pilot Peer Support programs, which allow pilots to speak to other pilots about struggles. 

This latest ARC comes as heightened scrutiny has emerged on aviation mental health and how pilots are suffering in silence. 

Captain Tajer explains the dilemma by sharing that “Pilots are scared to death to say anything, even to their neighbors. That’s what kind of witch hunt, it feels like, because the FAA has a stigma. Some of it earned, some of it just perception. But the bottom line [is], it is a reality to every pilot and air traffic controller out there.”

The FAA reiterated what it told Fox News earlier this year: “[Pilots should] seek help if they have a mental health condition since most, if treated, do not disqualify a pilot from flying.”

Read the full article here

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