Pilots, families call for reform to mental health support within aviation workforce

WASHINGTON — The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is taking a hard look at mental health in the aviation industry. It comes after a former Alaska Airlines pilot was accused of trying to cut the engines during a flight back in October.

This week, during a mental health roundtable with NTSB, aviation professionals and their families described their experiences with anxiety, depression and substance abuse.

“I am the face of someone who is seven years into recovery from alcoholism,” said Stephanie Day, flight attendant at Horizon Air.

“We did not know he was suffering from feelings of emptiness and sadness prior to this death,” said Anne Suh, parent of a pilot.

They also talked about the fear of reporting those mental health struggles.

“I faced of months out of work navigating the complicated certification process to get my medical [certification] back and the possibility of being told I would never fly again,” said Troy Merritt, first officer for United Airlines.

In a powerful moment, Suh shared a note her son, John, wrote before he took his own life by crashing his plane in 2021.

“In his final hours, John was still thinking of others, giving voice to the voiceless,” said Suh. “He wrote to us, ‘if there’s anything you can do for me, get the FAA to change the rules on pilots seeking help with their mental health. I know it would change a lot of things for the better and would help a lot of people out. Love you, John.’”

Now the NTSB is reviewing the unintended consequences of its system for evaluating mental fitness.

“The safety risk comes from a culture of silence around mental health, not about seeking help,” said Jennifer Homendy, NTSB Chair.

Aviation professionals suggest making review periods shorter and lowering the costs of evaluations.

Federal leaders say they’re listening.

“We show up for people who need us in the worst of times and then it’s our duty, it’s our mission to fight for them,” said Homendy.

This week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also announced a mental health committee. It will help identify other barriers that may discourage pilots from reporting and seeking care for mental health issues.

The rulemaking committee will submit its recommendations to the FAA by the end of March 2024.

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