Friday, June 10, 2016

Federal Aviation Administration encourages pilots to seek mental health treatment

Kathryn's Report:

WASHINGTON – One year after an intentional Germanwings plane crash, the Federal Aviation Administration announced steps Thursday to encourage pilots with mental health problems to seek treatment.

But the FAA won't initiate psychological testing for pilots or change rules on locked cockpit doors that were toughened after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said training would be enhanced for aviation medical examiners, who test pilots for hiring. Airlines and pilot unions will  also expand pilot assistance programs, Huerta said. Pilots get medical exams annually until they turn 40, then every 6 months.

“What we’re trying to do is create an environment where people are self-reporting and looking out for each other,” he said. “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."

The goal is to break down resistance to seeking treatment because pilots can be grounded for certain medical problems or medications.

"Most pilots have conditions that are in fact treatable," Huerta said.

The recommendations came from a committee of industry experts who reviewed pilot testing after the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 on March 24, 2015. The pilot, Andreas Lubitz, intentionally crashed into the Alps while flying from Barcelona to Dusseldorf, killing 150 people aboard, investigators found.

The number of intentional airline crashes is exceedingly small, with perhaps a half-dozen in the last three decades. But they draw tremendous attention and scrutiny.

In at least two cases – EgyptAir Flight 990 off Massachusetts in 1999 and SilkAir Flight 185 in Indonesia in 1997  – investigators detected pilots fighting for control of a plane before it crashed. But in cases such as Germanwings, the pilot acted alone, and Huerta said the U.S. policy to always have two people in the cockpit is intended to always have crewmembers evaluating each other for health problems.

"That backstops what might be going on in an individual’s personal situation," Huerta said.

 Michael Berry, FAA’s deputy federal air surgeon who co-chaired the committee, said psychological testing for suicide or homicide is a snapshot on the day of a test and wouldn’t be effective in annual medical exams.

“We did not see the benefit of doing that,” Berry said.

Doctors ask general questions about how pilots are feeling during the tests, and Huerta said training will be enhanced to spot signs of mental illness. Questionnaires that are part of the exams ask pilots about mental health problems and prescription usage.

“There is a lot of self-reporting that they are supposed to put on there,” Berry said. “They’re really not looking for severe psychiatric disease.”

Capt. Paul Morell, vice president for safety at American Airlines who co-chaired the committee, said employee-assistance programs that have focused on drug and alcohol abuse among airline workers will be enhanced to target mental health referrals.

Capt. Joe DePete, who has flown for 37 years for FedEx and the military and who represented the Air Line Pilots Association on the committee, said pilots are regularly checked medically, with simulators and other grading that are “very stringent.”

“My career is a psychological exam,” DePete said. “We are the most scrutinized profession in the world.”

Jon Beatty, CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, an industry group that studies safety issues and participated in the committee, commended FAA for finding a way for airlines, pilots and doctors to avoid a repeat of the Germanwings crash.

"Unquestionably, the best way to do so is to encourage pilots to seek medical help, and train physicians to both identify early warning signs and prescribe the best treatment,” Beatty said. “At the same time, we cannot afford to allow pilots with serious mental health issues to have access to the flight deck.”

The American Medical Association will debate next week different approaches to mental health testing, Berry said.

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