Mental Health

Report outlines challenges flagging pilots' mental health conditions

The report was prompted by a 2015 incident when Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed in the Alps, killing all 150 people on board.

Pilots conduct a pre-flight check in the cockpit of a Boeing 737 Max jet.
LM Otero/AP
SMS

A new report highlighted the challenges the Federal Aviation Administration faces in flagging pilots struggling with mental health. 

The report released by the Department of Transportation's Inspector General last week was prompted by a 2015 incident when Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed in the Alps, killing all 150 people on board. The flight's co-pilot reportedly suffered from severe depression, but the issues were never flagged to regulators. The co-pilot was accused of deliberately crashing the plane into a mountain. 

When the report was initiated in 2020, regulators said at least four similar incidents had resulted in 398 passengers and crew deaths. Sen. Dianne Feinstein requested the review.

The review found that the FAA "has comprehensive procedures to evaluate pilots’ psychological health," but its "ability to mitigate safety risks is limited by pilots’ reluctance to disclose mental health conditions."

988 suicide hotline made 5 million contacts in first year
988 suicide hotline made 5 million contacts in first year

988 suicide hotline made 5 million contacts in first year

The three-digit hotline replaced the old 1-800 number in July 2022 as the main source of contact for individuals in crisis.

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The report indicated that pilots are required to obtain a medical certificate from the FAA, which includes a mental health screening. The report found of 69 randomly selected applications, 29 were flagged for further review. Of those, 20 were initially denied medical certificates. 

In nine of those 20 cases, the applicants failed to provide all the requested information. Those nine pilots were granted a license after providing information. Eleven others were flagged for either substance dependence or other varying mental conditions. 

"FAA’s adherence to detailed procedures provides it with an extensive and structured process to evaluate pilots’ psychological health—a key component for helping mitigate potential safety risks," the report notes. 

But one concern is that pilots' reluctance to disclose mental health conditions remains a challenge. The report noted a 2019 study that said 38.8% of pilots said they feared losing their medical certificate if they reported mental health conditions. 

"Addressing barriers that discourage pilots from disclosing mental health issues is critical for FAA to mitigate potential aviation safety risks," the report notes.

The report suggests that the FAA work with airlines and airline pilot unions to find ways to address barriers that discourage pilots from disclosing and seeking treatment for mental health conditions.