Audit of FAA’s Evaluation of Pilot Mental Health is Underway
The United States Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General (DOT-OIG) is currently conducting an audit to assess whether or not the FAA’s procedures for evaluating the mental health of airline and other commercial pilots are sufficient enough to mitigate potential threats to aviation safety from pilots with mental health issues.
The audit was originally requested late last year by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California). She had expressed concern that FAA commercial pilot mental certification rules might be insufficient and referred to a number of incidents where pilots intentionally caused harm. Since 1994, there have been at least 6 of these airline crashes and they have resulted in almost 400 deaths.
One of these incidents, which has been the one to spur much of the debate around mental health evaluations for pilots, was the Germanwings incident of March 2015. Co-Pilot Andreas Lubitz had locked his captain out of the cockpit and deliberately set his plane on a collision course with a mountainside in the French alps killing all 150 people onboard. The investigation of the incident revealed that the pilot was currently being treated for a relapse of severe depression and had also been treated in the past for multiple suicidal tendencies which he never revealed to his airline employer.
After the incident, French investigators urged aviation authorities to reconsider how pilots’ mental health is examined and monitored. However, after much deliberation, the FAA announced in 2016 that they would be ruling out any requirement of psychological testing for airline pilots and instead would encourage airlines to create enhanced mental health support programs.
Michael Huerta, who was the FAA’s agency administrator at the time, said psychological tests were ineffective because they reveal a pilot’s mental health for only a moment in time without providing insight into whether the pilot will suffer problems later.
When it comes to medical requirements, the FAA requires pilots to take medical exams either annually or every 6 months depending on the pilot’s age and it must be administered by a designated Aviation Medical Examiner, or AME. However, these examiners aren’t required to ask specific mental-health questions and most of the exam is devoted to the pilot’s physical condition. The AME can evaluate a pilot’s mental health based on their conversation with the pilot during the exam.
While examiners can decline to issue a medical certificate, they don’t currently alert the FAA to mental health concerns and according to the FAA, only 1.1% of US airline pilots are denied medical certificates at the time of their exams and only .05% are finally denied a medical certificate after the FAA considers all the medical information.
When it comes to specific mental health requirements, the FAA does have a list of mental health medical standards in their first-class medical certification rules which are listed in the FAR 67.107 and state that a pilot must have “no established medical history or clinical diagnosis of the following”
- A personality disorder that is severe enough to have repeatedly manifested itself by overt acts
- A psychosis
- A bipolar disorder
- Substance dependency
However, the list also includes various definitions and a list of caveats where they may not be completely disqualifying and they’re completely contingent on someone telling the truth on their medical form known as the 8500-8. This form asks whether they’ve been diagnosed with or are being treated or taking medications for a mental illness. While lying on this form can result in severe consequences such as losing your pilot’s license forever, a fine up to $250,000 and imprisonment of up to 5 years, people still do it. There are two schools of thought which boil down to “honesty is always the best policy” and “if you wanna fly, you gotta lie” with the latter being something a pilot should never do.
A pilot might even try to reason that the antidepressant he or she has taken for months hasn’t caused any side effects and actually makes him or her more mentally fit to fly. So, they might wonder, ‘why open a can of worms by telling the AME?’ Of course, this is a dangerous mindset and not one that we would condone, and this is why the AME process with a certified medical professional exists. However, there are more than 700,000 pilots in US and the FAA’s civil aerospace medical institute in Oklahoma barely has the staff to keep up with the pilots who report their medical conditions, much less chase after the ones who lie. Therefore, the system relies on people being honest.
While catching lies on a medical form doesn’t happen often, it still does happen. In 2008, Donald crews received 16 months in jail for not reporting insulin dependent diabetes on his first-class medical. The only reason why it ever came to light was because he suffered a diabetic seizure during an air taxi flight and a student pilot who just happened to be onboard had to land the aircraft. Additionally, in 2005, the DOT-OIG discovered egregious lying on medical forms when they compared social security numbers of people who were on social security disability with the social security numbers of pilots. They found more than 3,200 pilots who claimed social security disability for conditions never reported on their medical forms and ended up generating a house transportation and infrastructure committee oversight report that asked the FAA to screen all pilot medicals for fraud. Eventually, it was found that 10% of pilots involved in fatal accidents had positive postmortem drug tests for prescription drugs of which only 10% had actually been reported to the FAA.
Given the nature of these events in recent years, it’s understandable why Senator Feinstein and others still have concerns over whether or not the current procedures are reliable. It’s unknown what the DOT-OIG’s audit will uncover and what, if any, changes would be made but it’s possible that inspiration may come from other countries. For instance, Europe has already taken action on this same issue and beginning next month, EASA will require national aviation authorities to incorporate provisions to “better identify, assess, and treat the psychological fitness” of commercial flight crew members.
EASA is requiring European airlines to perform a psychological assessment of their pilots before the start of employment. 3. 1 EASA. CAT. GEN. MPA. 175(B) states that the psychological assessment “must be validated and either directly performed or overseen by a psychologist with acquired knowledge in aviation relevant to the flight crew’s operating environment and with expertise in psychological assessment, and where possible, the psychological selection of aviation personnel.” It also states that the assessment must be undertaken within the past 24 months before commencing line flying, suggesting this will be something that needs to be renewed every 2 years similar to how pilots renew their medical certifications currently.
In addition to this assessment, all pilots working for European airlines will have access to a support program that will assist and support pilots in recognizing, coping with, and overcoming problems which might negatively affect their ability to safely exercise the privileges of their license. Random alcohol testing of pilots and cabin crew for all European and foreign airlines who fly into the territories of the European union has also been added as an additional safety measure.