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NTSB holds forum on pilots' mental health, chair says "the existing rules are arcane"

NTSB holds forum on pilots' mental health
Pilots, officials speak out at NTSB mental health forum: "The existing rules are arcane" 03:42

The government agencies that oversee U.S. airlines are examining mental health regulations for pilots after an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot allegedly tried to turn off the engines of a plane mid-flight.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) convened a mental health forum Wednesday to examine what needs to change, and witnesses, including pilots, told the panel they feared reporting problems, since they could be grounded by the FAA for good – unable to make a living.

"The existing rules are arcane," Jennifer Homendy, NTSB chair, told CBS News. "At the very least, pilots and others need to be able to sit down, talk to a therapist and not worry about the impact on their jobs."

Witnesses at the forum said FAA rules create a stigma around mental health that creates a safety risk. One study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine last year found that more than 56% of U.S. pilots avoid seeking medical treatment, out of fear of losing their FAA certification to fly.

The family of 19-year-old student pilot John Hauser, who struggled with mental health issues in silence before taking his own life, attended Wednesday's forum. Hauser feared that seeking help would cost him his FAA certification. In October 2021, he crashed a plane and died by suicide.

"In a letter describing the turmoil that John was silently facing, he wrote, 'I want to seek help more than anything. I really do. I want to get better. I just know if I try, I will have to give up on aviation and frankly, I'd rather not be here than to do that,'" Anne Suh, Hauser's mother, read from a letter he left behind. 

United Airlines First Officer Troy Merritt voluntarily grounded himself a year ago for anxiety and depression treatment. Despite taking FAA-approved medication, he could be out of work for another year before regulators allow him to fly again.

"Had the barriers that are in place today not been there, I know I would've sought treatment earlier," he said at the forum.

The forum was held a day after Joseph Emerson, who authorities said tried to shut off a passenger jet's engines during an October flight, was indicted by a grand jury in Portland, Oregon, on dozens of charges. On Thursday, he pleaded not guilty to all counts.

The off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot was allegedly under the influence of psychedelic mushrooms when he attempted to turn off an airliner's engines. He reportedly told police he had been battling undiagnosed depression. 

Before Wednesday's forum, a number of pilots were speaking out about not seeking mental health treatment for fear of losing their jobs.

"We need to have a system that allows people to be more forthcoming and to have treatment for issues that shouldn't keep you out of the cockpit," said FAA administrator Michael Whitaker.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told "CBS Mornings" last month that the company works to make sure 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 that he said will hopefully never happen. 

The training, combined with the airline's policies, aims to ensure pilots are mentally and physically fit to handle the stresses of flying.

"We have all kinds of policies in place where people can, whether it's a mental health or substance abuse, anything that's going on in their lives, illness, even fatigue, that they can call off and not come to work without penalties, without repercussions, and they have really good protections to ensure that that doesn't happen," said Kirby.

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