June 20, 2016
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The FAA has released recommendations from an aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) tasked with providing the agency input on how to assess and improve flight crew members’ mental fitness for duty. The ARC was empaneled last year in the aftermath of the Malaysia Air 370 and GermanWings 9525 tragedies. In both cases, a depressed member of the flight crew is believed to have potentially used the aircraft to commit suicide.
Dr. Quay Snyder, president and CEO of the Aviation Medicine Advisory Service in Centennial, CO, was an ARC member and served on the committee’s Medical Experts Working Group. He identified three ARC recommendations that have the most significant potential impact on business aircraft crews.
1. Enhance AME Training
“Aviation medical examiners (AMEs) have very little training in psychological issues,” said Snyder. “The FAA is looking at increasing AME training and AME interview skills.” Under the plan, AMEs would receive increased training in both mental health issues and in the interview skills they use to assess a pilot’s mental state.
“The idea is not to make the exam an interrogation,” Snyder added. Instead, the ARC wants AMEs to become better at helping pilots find resources when they encounter emotional stress.
2. Refrain From Standardizing Psychological Testing
The ARC did not recommend any sort of standardized psychological testing. “It’s not practical, it’s not cost-effective and it would be too easy for participants to circumvent the testing procedures,” said Dr. Snyder.
3. Further Develop Pilot-Assistance Programs
The ARC called on the aviation industry to create programs aimed at helping pilots who are experiencing emotional issues that could affect flight deck performance. For pilot assistance programs to work properly, all those involved must trust each other.
“There has to be trust between the pilot; the FAA and its designated representative, the AME; and the pilot’s employer,” said Snyder. “If a pilot comes forward and is honest about the problem, the employer needs to see that at face value and treat it as a safety measure taken by the pilot.” That might include assurances about job security, he pointed out.
It also might include peer counseling by other flight crew members, Snyder added. The peers would not be mental health experts, but would be able to empathize with pilots who need to talk with someone about the issues they face.