Another line of defense: Pilots are struggling and continuous evaluation technologies can help

Many pilots are hiding their mental health problems from the Federal Aviation Administration, fearing that they’ll lose their certifications and their job...

Pilots are struggling. One recent and particularly extreme case involved an off-duty pilot who, in the heat of a mental health crisis, attempted to turn a plane’s engines off during a passenger flight to San Francisco. Many other pilots are hiding their mental health problems from the Federal Aviation Administration, fearing that they’ll lose their certifications and their jobs.

To ameliorate these problems, the FAA recently created a Pilot Mental Health Aviation Rulemaking Committee. The new initiative is tasked with breaking down barriers that hinder mental health self-reporting. This is a necessary but insufficient step. In addition to more comprehensive self-reporting, the FAA needs to implement standards of continuous pilot evaluation, and then hold airlines accountable to them. Both pilot health and passenger safety depend on it.

Pilots face unique challenges that can weigh on their mental wellbeing. They travel frequently, spending time away from family and friends. They move in and out of many time zones, working irregular hours. Their profession is inherently stressful; hundreds of lives are in their hands whenever they are on the job.

In addition, financial and career incentive structures suppress transparent self-reporting. Using antidepressants or other mental health medications can lead to decertification, followed by a lengthy process to get back in the air. Pilots naturally don’t want to risk losing their salary for months. The result is that struggling pilots feel forced to either lie to the FAA, or choose not to get the care they need. Neglecting early treatment only worsens problems and sets pilots up for crises.

Unfortunately, the problem is widespread. In a 2022 study of 3765 pilots, 56% reported avoiding healthcare out of fear of losing certification; 27% said they had previously withheld information on FAA certification forms.

The FAA’s new committee seeks to destigmatize mental health treatment amongst pilots. While that’s a worthy goal, it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter: Pilots risk their careers and salaries by getting treatment. Destigmatizing treatment doesn’t change that fact.

With pilots struggling and lives at stake, the aviation industry needs to rely on more than just self-reporting.

Airlines need to invest in continuous evaluation programs that are data-driven and proactive. Such programs detect abnormal behaviors, seeking to identify early indications of a struggling employee to assist them. Systems can monitor publicly available data – from government court systems, sex offender registries and social media posts – to detect legal issues and organizational policy violations. This analysis can also determine when employees may be at an elevated risk of stress-related challenges or mental health concerns.

Continuous evaluation can also monitor the social determinants of health, predicting when pilots may be vulnerable. Environmental factors like neighborhood and community context, health care inaccessibility, and economic instability can intensify mental illness.

Rather than relying on pilots to voluntarily report issues, this automated approach allows airlines to proactively guide struggling pilots to personalized employee assistance programs before the issue poses a genuine threat.

While some might think that this approach compromises pilot privacy, this is not the case. Continuous evaluation requires employee consent before deploying a secure, limited-scope program. At every juncture, increasing safety and helping those who need it is the sole objective, not ratting out offenders in secret.

Transparency turns into trust. According to a recent study, more than 90% of workers were willing to allow their companies to collect data on them, provided there was a tangible benefit and their employers were transparent about how data would be collected and used. Maximizing flight safety and pilot health is about as tangible a benefit as one can imagine.

In aviation circles, the ‘Swiss Cheese Model’ of safety is commonly mentioned to minimize risk. Imagine a few slices of swiss cheese stacked up against each other. Each has holes, randomly distributed. If something slips through a hole in the first slice of cheese, it might not pass through a hole in the next slice. Built in redundancies work together to prevent accidents; if one layer of defense fails, another can avert catastrophe.

Continuous evaluation is not the only way to ensure safety in the skies. Pilot self-reporting remains a source of vital information, as do a myriad of other preventative measures. But continuous evaluation is another line of defense — another slice of cheese. By making it an industry best practice, the FAA can bolster pilot mental health, while ensuring that the skies are safe for the foreseeable future.

Tom Miller is co-founder and CEO of ClearForce, a people-risk technology company based in Vienna, Virginia.

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