Dr. Susan Northrup is the U.S. Federal Air Surgeon, she leads strategic management of the FAA’s aviation medical programs, including airman medical certification, aeromedical education programs, aerospace medical and human factors research, and investigation of aircraft accident medical factors. A private pilot and retired U.S. Force colonel, Dr. Northrup is board certified in aerospace medicine and occupational medicine. She has authored several scientific papers on accident investigation, the use of sleep aids by pilots, cabin air quality and bioterrorism. Dr. Northrup is a senior FAA aviation medical examiner and a past president of the American Society of Aerospace Medicine Specialists and the Civil Aviation Medical Association.
Q: At the outset of the pandemic, the FAA took a leadership role in keeping pilots in the air and controllers on the job. What steps did the agency take to make this happen?
When COVID hit last year, I was on the incident management team that coordinated the FAA’s response for both external and internal stakeholders. The team was a critical part of the nation’s response to keeping the national airspace up and running in four major areas: the air traffic organization response, extending airman medical certifications, approving vaccinations for use by airmen, and national and international aviation recovery guidance.
The good news is we kept the airspace running. Pilots kept doing their jobs that are so critical to our economy, and we were integral in every step of the way to get the necessary guidance to operators and airmen so they could safely function within the airspace.
Q: The FAA recently issued additional guidance for pilots who faced more severe cases of COVID. What have you seen?
As we learned more about the virus that causes COVID-19, we discovered that certain people have what is being termed “long-haul COVID,” which can be respiratory or cardiac in nature or cause cognitive difficulties. We’re also seeing some mental health diagnoses. According to one statistic, of all the people infected in the United States, 230,000 people have developed mental health conditions. That number goes to four in 10 when looking at subsets that were in intensive care units.
Q: How do you hope to deal with such long-term pilot fitness challenges while finding opportunities to utilize the agency’s compliance program that prioritizes education over enforcement?
It’s one of my goals to have the compliance philosophy [program] embedded in a lot of what we do. We held an aeromedical summit last November with internal and external stakeholders, and everybody got a chance to speak. They told us what we were doing well and gave us lots of helpful suggestions.
We understand it can be scary to receive a letter from the FAA concerning your medical certificate. We’ve modified our letters to make sure both the agency’s decision and the necessary steps to address it are clearer to both the pilot and the aviation medical examiner, and we’re exploring ways to allow pilots and AMEs to submit documents electronically.
We’re also working on a method by which aviators can see their case status within the FAA medical system. If you can figure out where your pizza is by going online, it would be awfully nice if we could tell you where your medical was, too.
Q: With vaccinations increasing, media reports suggest we could see a summer travel season rivalling 2019. What do you expect the flying environment will be like?
I think we will continue to see differing levels of COVID requirements state to state, so it’s incredibly important that air crews and travelers in general pay attention to what they’re going to do as they travel. I also encourage people to go look at the source medical guidance, as occasionally what’s reported in the media may be an overstatement of what’s published.
Now is the time we really have to pay attention to each other and our own mental well-being. People are stressed, and it’s critical that we take care of each other and get the help we need for ourselves and our families. Check on each other regularly, make sure you’re taking care of yourself and reach out if you need help.