PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — In an effort to boost passenger and pilot safety, the Federal Aviation Administration has announced a committee to look at pilot mental health and make it easier to report conditions to the agency.
“We’re doing everything we can to encourage open discussion of these issues and early intervention when necessary,” FAA Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Susan Northrup said. “Most conditions, if treated, do not disqualify a pilot from flying. In fact, only about 0.1% of all medical certificate applicants who disclose health issues are final denied.”
Officials say there’s a stigma surrounding mental health in the aviation industry, and they hope moves like this committee — made up of medical experts and aviation and labor representatives — is a step in the right direction.
Other efforts include improving research on antidepressants and hiring more mental health professionals to decrease the wait time necessary to determine whether a pilot can return to flying.
Dr. Northrup said the goal is to decrease the stigma surrounding mental health in the aviation community.
“A mental health diagnosis is not a career ender,” she said. “Any pilot with a substance use problem who achieves satisfactory recovery will get back in the cockpit. We continue to look for ways to further break down other barriers.”
This endeavor follows an incident in which a plane required an emergency landing at the Portland International Airport after off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot allegedly attempted to take down a plane. That pilot, Joseph Emerson, later admitted to having a nervous breakdown and depression.
Aviation expert and DePaul University transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman told KOIN 6 that more needs to be done to keep passengers safe. This means having more open policies for pilots to come forward and get the help they need.
“The pilot was very open that he had severe mental health challenges. Nothing was done by airlines, the FAA. That’s really a red flag,” Schwieterman said. “The industry is really grappling with mental health in the cockpit.”
The FAA says they will look at recommendations detailed in a recent Inspector General report, but says prompting dialogue will make all the difference.
“Ultimately, though, any discussion about safety and performance must involve open and honest communication,” Northrup said.
A charter for the committee and appointing a panel of experts is expected to be finalized in the next few weeks.