NTSB holds pilot mental health forum, chairman says ‘existing rules arcane’

Government agencies that oversee US airlines are investigating pilot mental health regulations after an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot allegedly tried to shut down the engines of a plane in flight.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) convened a mental health forum on Wednesday to examine what needs to change, and witnesses, including pilots, told the panel they were afraid to report problems because they could be banned by the FAA forever – unable to make a living.

“The existing rules are arcane,” Jennifer Hommendi, chair of the NTSB, told CBS News. “At the very least, pilots and others should be able to sit down, talk to a therapist and not worry about the impact on their work.”

Witnesses at the forum said the FAA rules create a stigma around mental health that creates a safety risk. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine last year found that more than 56 percent of American pilots avoid seeking medical treatment for fear of losing their FAA pilot’s license.

The family of 19-year-old student pilot John Houser, who quietly struggled with mental health issues before taking his own life, attended the forum on Wednesday. Houser feared that seeking help would cost him his FAA certification. In October 2021, he crashed a plane and committed suicide.

“In a letter describing the turmoil John was silently facing, he wrote: ‘I want to get help more than anything. I really do. I want to get better. I just know that if I try, I’ll have to give up aviation, and frankly, I’d rather not be here than do that,” said Anne Sue, Hauser’s mother, from a letter he left behind.

United Airlines First Officer Troy Merritt voluntarily shut down a year ago to treat anxiety and depression. Although he is on FAA-approved medication, he could be out of work for another year before regulators allow him to fly again.

“If the barriers that exist today weren’t there, I know I would have sought treatment sooner,” he told the forum.

The forum was held a day after Joseph Emerson, who authorities say tried to shut down the engines of a passenger plane mid-flight in October, was indicted by a grand jury in Portland, Ore., on dozens of charges. In Thursday, he pleaded not guilty on all points.

The off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot was allegedly under the influence of psychedelic mushrooms when he tried to shut down aircraft engines. He reportedly told police he struggled with undiagnosed depression.

Ahead of Wednesday’s forum, a number of pilots spoke about not seeking mental health treatment for fear of losing their jobs.

“We need to have a system that allows people to be more responsive and have treatment for issues that shouldn’t keep you out of the cockpit,” said FAA Administrator Michael Whittaker.

CEO of United Airlines Scott Kirby told “CBS Mornings” last month that the company is working to ensure that pilots’ mental health is “in a good place” and that United pilots undergo training every nine months, including simulator sessions designed to prepare them for scenarios he said hopefully never happen.

The training, coupled with airline policies, aims to ensure that pilots are mentally and physically fit to handle the stress of flying.

“We have all kinds of policies in place where people can, whether it’s mental health or substance abuse, anything that’s going on in their life, illness, even fatigue, that they can cancel and not come to work without penalty, without consequence, and they have really good safeguards to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Kirby said.

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