Embry-Riddle, FAA Align on Confronting Pilot Mental Health Following New Federal Recommendations

Behind the pilot from within a cockpit
Addressing mental health in the aviation industry is becoming more of a priority following newly released recommendations from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has openly tackled the issue of pilot and air traffic controller mental health, incorporating updated ways of confronting the issue into the university’s aviation education programs. Following a recent review of mental health policies, a committee of experts commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has also moved forward on the topic, releasing recommendations designed to increase public safety by allowing pilots and controllers to seek support and treatment without jeopardizing their jobs.

“To advance aviation safety and save lives, we must debunk the notion that having the ‘right stuff’ means never asking for help,” Embry-Riddle President P. Barry Butler, Ph.D., said in an editorial in early 2023, reporting that the university had “accelerated its ongoing efforts to place mental health issues front and center,” repeatedly encouraging student pilots “to seek help if they feel they need it.”

Embry-Riddle’s dean of the College of Aviation, Dr. Alan Stolzer, was among the experts on the committee commissioned late last year by the FAA to examine the obstacles preventing pilots and air traffic controllers from seeking mental health support and to make recommendations on how to mitigate those obstacles in order to reduce flight safety risks.

“We ended up with 24 recommendations that were thoughtfully developed with the goal of modernizing the system and removing barriers to pilots and controllers seeking mental health care without compromising safety in the National Airspace System,” Stolzer said. “Safety was at the forefront of all our discussions and was considered inviolable.”

The committee’s recommendations were released on April 1 and included establishing a “non-punitive” way for aviation professionals to disclose mental health conditions, making sure that FAA medical screening procedures are relevant to safety principles, expanding peer support programs and promoting mental health awareness.

The FAA’s focus on the issue first intensified in 2015 after the co-pilot of a Germanwings flight, who had been previously treated for suicidal tendencies, commandeered a plane with 150 people aboard and flew it into a mountainside. More recently, in October of 2023, an off-duty pilot suffering a mental health crisis tried to shut down the engines of an Alaska Airlines flight.

As Butler pointed out in his editorial, the work of pilots and air traffic controllers is not only stressful because they are protecting the lives of passengers. The long hours required in many such jobs can heighten stress levels.

The FAA committee’s report cited a “widespread belief" in the aviation field that pilots and controllers “are, in effect, disadvantaged” if they follow current rules regarding disclosure of mental health problems.

“A system that incentivizes people to remain silent will cause pilots/controllers to avoid seeking help, leading to unacceptable safety risks,” the report says.

Although disclosing a mental health issue very rarely results in permanent grounding or removal of duties, according to the report, the process of being reinstated after a disqualification is perceived by pilots and controllers as “complicated, excessive and inconsistent with accepted protocols and treatment practices,” the report says.

Specific reforms being recommended for adoption involve which treatments must be reported, reductions in the grounding time required for newly prescribed medications to stabilize and allowing performance measurements in the assessment of a pilot’s or controller’s fitness for duty.

“If adopted, the recommendations would lead to substantive changes to current FAA mental health rules, such as eliminating the requirement to report seeing a therapist and reducing some of the more onerous requirements with respect to use of medications,” Stolzer said.

“The [committee] is recommending several significant, risk-based reforms to aeromedical policy,” the report says, “with the recognition that treatment is the key benefit to the safety of the National Airspace System.”

Posted In: Aviation