FAA to examine mental health rules for pilots, air traffic controllers


(NEW YORK) — The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced it will examine its rules on pilot mental health.

The move comes after years of calls from industry and government leaders, and the high-profile case of an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot who allegedly tried to crash a commercial flight in October, and who claimed he suffered from mental health issues.

The pilot, Joseph Emerson, allegedly told officers he believed he was having a “nervous breakdown,” according to a criminal complaint. Emerson also stated he became depressed about six months prior to the incident, the complaint said.

An Oregon grand jury on Tuesday indicted Emerson on one count of endangering an aircraft in the first degree and 83 counts of recklessly endangering another person — one count for every other person onboard the aircraft — in connection with the Oct. 22 incident, according to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office. He pleaded not guilty to initial charges in October.

The FAA said Tuesday it would establish a rulemaking committee to “identify and break down any remaining barriers that discourage pilots from reporting and seeking care for mental health issues.” The committee will also examine the same issues for air traffic controllers.

Current regulations mandate that pilots undergo a medical examination with an aviation medical examiner (AME) every six months to five years, depending on their age and the type of flying they do, including whether private or commercial. AMEs determine the pilot’s mental health and fitness to fly.

Pilots are also required to disclose any physical and psychological conditions, as well as any medications they may be taking. Many pilots and air traffic controllers have expressed concern about revealing mental health information, for fear of it adversely affecting their careers.

“This is quite a challenge for the FAA but a very appropriate one because if there is anything that we can do to lower the barriers of people reporting mental health problems, then we need to research it,” ABC News contributor and former commercial pilot John Nance said.

The FAA says it “encourages” pilots to seek help if they have a mental health condition “since most, if treated, do not disqualify a pilot from flying.” Certain conditions do, however, disqualify pilots from flying, such as “psychosis, bipolar disorder and some types of personality disorder,” according to the agency.

The committee must submit its recommendations to the FAA by March 2024.


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