The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced the formation of a new committee to tackle the challenges of pilot mental health, following a recent incident that raised serious concerns about the safety of the skies.
The new committee, called the Pilot Mental Health Aviation Rulemaking Committee (PMH ARC), was created in response to the case of Joseph David Emerson, an off-duty pilot who was arrested on October 24, 2023, for attempting to crash an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Portland. Emerson, who was depressed and had a nervous breakdown, tried to pull two red fire handles and cut off fuel to the engines during the flight, according to court records. He also told the two pilots in the cockpit that he was “not OK” and that he had recently used psychedelic mushrooms for the first time. Emerson, who is now facing 83 counts of attempted murder, reportedly never sought help or told his employer or the FAA about his mental health condition, fearing that he would lose his income and his ability to fly.
FAA aims to improve pilot mental health screening and support
The PMH ARC, which is composed of representatives from the FAA, airlines, pilot unions, medical experts, and other stakeholders, will review the current policies and procedures for evaluating pilot mental health and fitness to fly, and make recommendations for improvements. The committee will also explore ways to reduce the stigma of mental health issues among pilots, and encourage them to seek early help and treatment. The FAA said that most mental health conditions, if treated properly, do not disqualify a pilot from flying, and that only about 0.1% of medical certificate applicants who disclose health issues are denied. However, pilots who disclose mental health treatment or medication are required to undergo additional medical evaluations and tests, which can be costly and time-consuming, and may result in temporary or permanent grounding.
The FAA said that the PMH ARC will also conduct research and clinical studies on pilot mental health, and provide training and education to aviation medical examiners and peer support volunteers. The committee is expected to submit its report and recommendations to the FAA by June 2024.
Pilot mental health a global concern
The issue of pilot mental health has been a global concern since the Germanwings Flight 9525 crash in 2015, which was deliberately caused by the co-pilot who suffered from depression and suicidal tendencies. The incident prompted the FAA to establish the Pilot Fitness Aviation Rulemaking Committee (PF ARC) in 2016, which provided several recommendations to the FAA on how to evaluate pilots’ psychological health and promote pilot wellness. The FAA said that it has implemented some of these recommendations, such as expanding the training on mental health issues for aviation medical examiners and encouraging pilot peer support programs organized by airlines and unions. The PMH ARC is expected to build on the work of the PF ARC and address the remaining gaps and challenges in the field of pilot mental health.