It’s time to change the approach to mental health in pilots from clinical to performance-based, according to a neurologist who specializes in air crew brain health and pilot health care behavior. William Hoffman, an affiliated assistant professor of aviation at the University of North Dakota John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Science, said in an opinion piece in the Seattle Times that the current regime encourages pilots to avoid seeking help. He also said the emphasis should be on helping pilots through transient episodes with “life’s stressors” rather than weeding them out of flying.
“In a performance-based approach, objectives tools measuring biometric data like sleep patterns or cognitive testing measuring working memory aim to help a pilot inform their preflight health assessment,” Hoffman writes. “How such an approach might be implemented is an open research question that leaders should prioritize.” He said the focus should be on whether pilots can safely do their jobs despite a mental health issue. In the short term, he said the vast inequities in help available to pilots with mental health issues should be addressed. He said that while some major airlines have comprehensive mental health programs available and covered by company health insurance, some smaller carriers have limited or no mental health help available for pilots.
Meanwhile, the FAA’s Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Susan Northrup took to YouTube Monday with a video update on the agency’s efforts to foster pilot mental health. The video stresses that mental health issues, when flagged and treated appropriately, almost never result in the loss of a certificate. Northrup said the agency is streamlining processes to handle mental health cases and has hired more staff to assess them faster.
Hoffman penned the piece after two high-profile in-flight events in which mental health may have played a role. Two weeks ago, an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot jump seating to San Francisco on a Horizon Airlines flight attempted to activate the fire suppression system on the E175 while it was cruising over Oregon. A week later, an indictment was approved against a Delta Air Lines pilot who allegedly threatened to shoot his captain over a diversion for a passenger with a health issue.