Airline Pilots Securing Their Future through ALPA

By Ron Rindfleisch, ALPA Communications Specialist
Air Line Pilot,
April 2004, p.32

ALPA Aeromedical Puts Pilots Back on the Line

Many ALPA members breathe a lot more easily because they have taken advantage of the advice offered by the ALPA Aeromedical Office.

How To Get in Touch

As with the other "service provider" functions that ALPA maintains, the ALPA Aeromedical Office has seen a large growth in demand for its professional expertise. Last year, the Office’s doctors helped more than 7,600 ALPA pilots with their medical questions and prepared more than 2,500 medical record packages for FAA review. The ultimate goal is to preserve both the pilot’s health and the FAA medical certificate.

Any member can call the ALPA Aeromedical Office at 303-341-4435, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Mountain Time. So the next time you have a question about your FAA medical certificate, give the ALPA Aeromedical Office a call and let the most qualified doctors in the world offer their advice.

ALPA’s Aeromedical Office was established in 1969 in response to a 1968 Board of Directors action. The Association retained Dr. Richard L. Masters to advise ALPA’s President and to provide professional medical advice to ALPA members upon request.

Over the years, the Aeromedical Office has also been instrumental in getting the FAA to change many policies and allow pilots to regain or maintain their medical certification, often with conditions that the FAA previously considered permanently disqualifying, such as coronary bypass surgery, angioplasty, isolated seizure, total loss of vision in one eye, and a number of others.

In 1974, one of the most important developments occurred: the Human Intervention and Motivation Study (HIMS-1) was established. Funded by a major U.S. government grant, HIMS-1 worked to combat a major unaddressed medical cause of premature career loss from alcoholism. With the cooperation of the FAA and most airlines, thousands of pilots have been successfully treated for alcoholism and have returned to work. Currently, the Aeromedical Office is responsible for directing HIMS III and maintains a comprehensive website, (See "HIMS: Addressing Alcohol Abuse," page 17.)

In January 1993, Dr. Masters retired as ALPA’s Aeromedical Advisor, and Dr. Donald Hudson was appointed as his successor and remains in that position. Assisting him in their Aurora, Colo., office are Drs. W. Keith Martin, Quay C. Snyder, Robert J. Stepp, Thomas T. Yasuhara, and Robert W. Weien; an office administrator; an FAA case manager; and five administrative support personnel.

Experts on call

The ALPA Aeromedical Office counsels ALPA’s President and other National Officers on all matters pertaining to the general health and welfare of the Association’s members. The Aeromedical Office does not make policy.

The Office advises and helps master and local executive council officers and their appointed aeromedical coordinators on general health and welfare problems of members.

The Aeromedical Office provides technical and scientific information on matters relating to medicine and its various specialties as these disciplines may pertain to problems within the flight environment, human factors, and related matters.

The Office is also responsible for remaining aware of current FAA certification regulations, procedures, techniques, and philosophy, and for interacting with FAA medical officials to expedite individual case management wherever possible.

The Aeromedical Office also supports ALPA’s efforts in the area of human factors. The Board of Directors has recognized human factors as an area that should receive special study. Staff study and research of human factors problems, as they relate to the flight environment and aircraft accidents, provide background for the technical advice and help provided to those persons in the Association responsible for this activity.

A very important continuing function of the Aeromedical Office is to develop, and to encourage pilots to practice, preventive medicine in its broadest aspects. Health education, an important focus of preventive medicine, will continue to be a matter of concern in the future. The Office prepares articles and other data to be disseminated to ALPA’s members on various health matters that pertain to maintaining flight status and good preventive medicine. The Office also prepares and reviews periodic feature articles that pertain to current medical issues that concern ALPA’s members.

Pilots first

Even though thousands of ALPA pilots have accessed the services of the ALPA Aeromedical Office, many others, especially newer members, are not aware of this service, which is provided free of charge to members in good standing. When an ALPA pilot so requests, the Aeromedical Advisors will review detailed information about the individual’s medical problems as they might relate to health, welfare, continued employment, disability, or FAA certification. This direct special service is not a representation service, but a medical advisory service provided at no charge to an ALPA member.

A member of the Association who contacts the ALPA Aeromedical Office will first speak with one of the administrative assistants. They are responsible for obtaining initial information (ALPA member number, name, airline, general reason for call, etc.), and they must be certain that the pilot is an ALPA member in good standing. The Office does not accept anonymous or collect calls.

Once the assistant obtains initial information, one of the physicians will return the call (usually within the hour) to discuss the case and to answer questions. If the doctor recommends diagnostic evaluations on an individual basis, the pilot is responsible for the costs. The pilot may seek further evaluation from a private physician, or the ALPA physician may refer the pilot to medical consultants who are known for their expertise in a specific specialty of medicine and are usually also acquainted with aviation medicine principles.

Each specific referral is tailored to the needs of the individual pilot and depends upon the medical problem, past medical history, and availability of specialists. In every instance, the Office carefully analyzes all data to ensure that each appeal case is completely documented.

Confidential communication

All communications between the ALPA Aeromedical Office and an individual pilot are held in the strictest confidence. The Office releases no information without the specific consent of the pilot. Hence, a member can discuss medical questions with professional personnel with the assurance that any communications will be confidential.

Many of the difficulties that pilots face when their medical certification is threatened can be prevented or alleviated if the aeromedical coordinator and/or the ALPA Aeromedical Office act promptly. Many ALPA pilots never bring their problems to the attention of the ALPA Aeromedical Office. Promptly notifying the Office can often prevent a long grounding and unnecessary loss of productivity.

The Office often finds that advising a pilot about medical problems is difficult without having access to that pilot’s medical records and the opinions of attending physicians. When a pilot consults the ALPA Aeromedical Office, the physician will inform that pilot about what medical records he needs to see. After receiving and reviewing those medical records, the physician will contact the pilot and discuss the matter in detail or respond in writing.

Often the physician can handle a matter by telephone and save weeks or even months in the certification process. Frequently, the FAA delays a certification decision because the pilot, acting on his or her own, has furnished the agency with inadequate medical information upon which to make a judgment. Pilots who consult with the ALPA Aeromedical Office in advance will help ensure that the medical records they provide to FAA will be adequate and complete.

Often, problems arising in FAA certification are secondary to, or caused by, inadequate or improper medical management. Busy private physicians and clinics usually do not have the time or interest to prepare the detailed paperwork that the FAA needs. Staff at the ALPA Aeromedical Office can advise pilots about how best to prepare a case and the most expeditious manner in which to have the case resolved. The Office can communicate directly with the FAA and serve as an advocate for the pilot with a medical problem. However, in each case, the medical advice that the ALPA Aeromedical Office gives to the pilot will be consistent with good medical practice. The Office will give appropriate weight to the individual’s health and ability to perform safely as a flightcrew member.

Finally, the advice the Office provides to the member is only that. A pilot’s request for assistance is voluntary, and the final selection of a physician is ultimately the pilot’s decision.