Last updated: 12:35 PM ET, Sun June 19 2016

Germanwings, MH370 Tragedies Prompt FAA Scrutiny Of Pilots’ Mental Fitness

Airlines & Airports | Rich Thomaselli | June 19, 2016

Germanwings, MH370 Tragedies Prompt FAA Scrutiny Of Pilots’ Mental Fitness

Last year’s deliberate crash of a Germanwings flight, allegedly by a troubled pilot, weighs heavily on the mind of the FAA with this decision. (Photo via Twitter)

Prompted by the tragedies of the Germanwings crash last year and the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is working with commercial airlines and pilots’ unions to improve mental health evaluations, and encourage voluntary reporting of pilot mental health issues.

In the case of the Germanwings incident, investigators believe a recent breakup led the pilot to lock the captain out of the cockpit and deliberate steer the plane into the side of the French Alps.

An Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) comprised of aviation and medical experts has made several recommendations about pilot medical fitness.

“Safety is always our first priority and this includes making sure our nation’s commercial pilots undergo robust medical evaluations,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Foxx said in a statement. “The U.S. commercial aviation community is working together to make sure pilots are able to report, and be treated for, any mental health condition. We must be confident pilots are medically fit when they enter the cockpit.”

“U.S. commercial pilots undergo vigorous and regular medical screening,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “While some conditions automatically disqualify someone from flying, many pilots have treatable conditions. We need to do more to remove the stigma surrounding mental illness in the aviation industry so pilots are more likely to self-report, get treated, and return to work.”

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.      

The FAA, airlines and pilots’ unions considered the ARC’s recommendations and agreed to these actions:

* 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. 

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