Pilot Peer Support: Addressing Member Health, Wellness with a New Resource

By F/O John Taylor (United), ALPA Pilot Assistance Group Chair
Pilot Assistance volunteers and staff meet at ALPA’s Herndon, Va., offices to put final touches on ALPA’s newest Pilot Assistance program, Pilot Peer Support. From left, Marque Malan, ALPA’s Aeromedical and Human Performance specialist; F/O Steve Savidge (Alaska), ALPA’s Aeromedical vice chair; Capt. Paul Westfield (FedEx Express), ALPA’s Aeromedical subject-matter expert; F/O Travis Ludwig (United), ALPA’s Pilot Assistance vice chair; F/O Ellen Brinks (Delta), ALPA’s Aeromedical chair; F/O John Taylor (United), ALPA’s Pilot Assistance chair; and Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA’s first vice president and national safety coordinator.

Stress is a normal physical and psychological reaction to life’s challenges. Numerous organizations including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health Canada, and ALPA’s Aeromedical Office offer recommendations for managing stress. As ALPA’s Pilot Assistance chair, I encourage you to periodically review these suggestions and consider how they can help you better maintain your health and well-being. However, there may be circumstances when these strategies are simply not enough to meet member needs and other options must be considered.

While being an airline pilot can be extremely rewarding, studies have demonstrated that it’s also one of the most stressful occupations. Time changes, differing sleep environments, and operational demands can take their toll, particularly if they’re combined with family, financial, or other personal problems. The need to maintain aviation safety and security while addressing pilot mental fitness has compelled ALPA to look for a new way to help combat member stress, and I’m proud to introduce the Pilot Peer Support program.

Administered by the Aeromedical Group within the Air Safety Organization’s (ASO) Pilot Assistance structure, Pilot Peer Support is an Association-wide network of trained pilot volunteers to contact when confronting work- and nonwork-related issues of a personal or emotional nature. In addition to the resources that are available for families, Pilot Peer Support helps pilots better cope with the events that could otherwise threaten their medical certificates and careers.

The Pilot Peer Support program is slated to go active during the third quarter of 2018. Once the program is functioning, those who wish to use the service can call the ALPA Worldwide Accident/Serious Incident Hotline  to be connected with a Pilot Peer Support representative. An announcement about the actual startup date of the program will be made soon.

All for one

Pilot Peer Support complements the other Pilot Assistance disciplines, providing a unique opportunity to speak about personal matters with someone who can offer an empathetic and supportive ear. ALPA members and their families are likely to have various reasons to use the program.

Pilot Peer Support representatives come from all ALPA pilot groups and aircraft types, committing themselves to fully supporting the well-being of our members and their families. These volunteers listen and offer guidance in a confidential, nonjudgmental manner. This guidance can include

  • having someone to talk with.
  • sharing information about the many programs the Association offers.
  • providing information about professional assistance.

Most importantly, Pilot Peer Support representatives are trained. Volunteers participate in 16 hours of lecture and simulations, focusing on listening and communication skills, stress, bereavement, mental health and pilot medical certification, available resources, ethical practices, and wellness.

The inaugural training for pilot peer support volunteers will be held July 30–31 during ALPA’s Air Safety Forum. As part of the course, each trainee develops a working portfolio of contact information and communication tools and is required to pass a written exam. In addition, recurrent training will be offered to ensure that volunteers maintain their competency and skills.

It’s important to remember that there is a broad range of mental health issues that can affect your thinking, mood, and behavior. While serious conditions may exist for some individuals, it’s not uncommon to be confronted with an isolated incident that’s temporarily disturbing or upsetting. But these incidents deserve attention.

Meeting a need

The impetus for creating Pilot Peer Support was multifaceted. About 25 years ago, the Australian Air Line Pilots’ Association set up its own Pilot Assistance Network, using a mix of peer support and other resources. Although structurally different from the ALPA program, our organization has monitored this network—and the comparable pilot programs that have since emerged—through our mutual affiliation with the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations.

In addition, several ALPA pilot groups have created their own versions of Pilot Peer Support, including the Delta Pilot Assistance Network (PAN), the FedEx Express Pilot Assistance Telephone Hotline (PATH), and the United Support Outreach Assistance Resources (SOAR) Peer Support Program.

On occasion, members have called ALPA’s Worldwide Accident/Serious Incident Hotline regarding personal matters and have been put in contact with ALPA’s Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP) volunteers. These calls helped the ASO and Pilot Assistance realize that members had a need that our organization had yet to fully address.

However, the real turning point was the Germanwings Flight 9525 tragedy in March 2015. Coupled with speculations about the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 the year before, these two occurrences shook the global airline industry, generating widespread public concern about mental health screening for airline pilots.

In the United States, a Pilot Fitness Aviation Rulemaking Committee was chartered by the FAA to assess methods used to evaluate and monitor pilot mental health as well as possible barriers to reporting concerns. The committee, whose members included Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA’s first vice president and national safety coordinator, and Keith Hagy, director of ALPA’s Engineering & Air Safety Department, issued a final report on Nov. 18, 2015, concluding that “the best strategy for minimizing the risks related to pilot mental fitness is to create an environment that encourages and is supportive of pilot voluntary self-disclosure.” The report noted, “Early identification of mental fitness issues leads to better results.”

The committee offered recommendations including the use of pilot assistance programs, emphasizing that pilots would benefit from a “confidential, nonstigmatized, and safe environment.” The final report stated that when a culture of mutual trust and cooperation is created, pilots are less likely to conceal conditions and more likely to seek help for mental health issues.

With this input, ALPA determined that the best way for members and their families to seek help would be through a program administered by the Association’s Aeromedical Committee. Because physical and mental health are inextricably connected—and both are factors in pilot medical certification—this branch of Pilot Assistance would be best suited to manage this charge, and the Pilot Peer Support program was established.

Removing barriers that could prevent or discourage airline pilots from seeking help when they need it is an essential step in making Pilot Peer Support work. Knowing that you can call a fellow pilot and speak confidentially and without fear of reprisal should encourage members to take full advantage of this resource. Ultimately, adding Pilot Peer Support to the Pilot Assistance network of member services is just one more way ALPA is pilots helping pilots.

Please talk to your fellow members about Pilot Peer Support, use it when you need it, and keep in mind that we’re always looking for volunteers.

Here’s to your good health.

Canadian Pilot Peer Support

Canadian Pilot Peer Support or Pilot Assistance has been in place in Canada for many decades and has evolved into a finely tuned program focused on the needs of the pilot community within ALPA Canada. With regard to peer support, Canadian pilots should be aware that the concepts and principles remain constant on a global basis; but due to our unique situation, the process differs slightly in Canada. Information on Pilot Assistance and contact details for peer volunteers can be found on aso.alpa.org or by contacting your local master executive council representatives.

Pilot Assistance peers are highly motivated individuals trained to assist with issues that may affect a pilot’s professional performance or personal life. Canadian pilot assistants are also trained in critical incident response. All of this is accomplished in a very confidential and understanding manner.

Canadian Pilot Assistance has a long history of guiding pilots through difficult times and is available to help pilots in need. —Capt. Murray Munro (Jazz Aviation), Canadian Pilot Assistance Chair

This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of Air Line Pilot.

Read the latest Air Line Pilot (PDF)