NTSB Summit Highlights Need for Better Collaboration in Addressing Mental Health in Aviation

By John Perkinson, Senior Staff Writer
Attendees, including Capt. Travis Ludwig (United), ALPA’s Pilot Assistance Group chair, take part in the NTSB’s “Navigating Mental Health in Aviation” summit.

On Dec. 6, 2023, the NTSB hosted the “Navigating Mental Health in Aviation” summit at its boardroom and conference center in Washington, D.C. Several ALPA representatives attended the meeting to provide the line-pilot perspective on this important issue. Setting the tone for the summit’s various presentations, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy, who moderated the event, asserted, “No one should have to think twice about their job before seeking help, and, yet, here we are today because that’s not currently the case in U.S. aviation.”

Just the day before, the FAA announced the establishment of the Mental Health and Aviation Medical Clearances Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC), which ALPA was asked to cochair. Capt. Jason Ambrosi, ALPA’s president, appointed Capt. Travis Ludwig (United), ALPA’s Air Safety Organization Pilot Assistance Group chair, to serve as a cochair on the ARC.

The group is tasked with identifying “ways to address barriers that discourage pilots from disclosing and seeking treatment for mental health conditions.” According to the ARC charter, the group is to “submit a report with recommendations no later than March 30, 2024.”

The NTSB summit featured several group discussions, including the panel “Our Current Approach to Evaluating Mental Illness: Views from FAA, Providers, and Researchers.” Among the featured speakers, Dr. Quay Snyder, ALPA’s aeromedical advisor, remarked, “We need to look at this as a performance issue.” He pointed out the responsible way pilots embraced procedures once they were allowed to fly while taking blood pressure and cholesterol medications. “If you break a leg, you ground yourself, you talk with your doctor, and then you return to fly. Why don’t we treat mental health the same way?” he responded.

During the meeting, a group of 27 representatives from airlines, labor, government, and academia, as well as other aviation stakeholders, participated in a roundtable discussion titled “The Future of Mental Health in Aviation, Where We Go from Here.” Among the many participants, Ludwig discussed the remarkable success of the Association’s Pilot Peer Support (PPS) program and its various iterations used by ALPA pilot groups.

Ludwig talked about the importance of establishing trust, fostered by the confidential nature of the program. “The only way I can get buy-in from a pilot in crisis is if they know they can reach out to a peer and have it stay within that group.” He shared that PPS is part of a larger approach ALPA is taking with multiple programs to address pilot health and wellness. “We’re not clinical professionals,” he added, noting that trained pilot volunteers are simply working with individuals who need assistance and, when necessary, guiding them to available resources.

Snyder, who also participated in the roundtable discussion, highlighted the need for collaboration when addressing pilot mental health issues. He also discussed the importance of getting airlines more involved, particularly at the domicile flight-management level.

Another panel examined firsthand accounts of individuals addressing mental health concerns with the FAA. Among the participants, F/O Troy Merritt (United) revealed how he voluntarily grounded himself to treat his depression. The A320 pilot worked with his doctor to find the right medication, which helped immensely. Merritt is now awaiting review for special-issuance medical certification.

“Thanks to my union, I have an excellent disability insurance plan that allowed me to take medical leave for mental health care and go through this process without significant financial loss,” he said. However, Merritt observed that not everyone is as fortunate.

In advance of the NTSB summit, ALPA called for changes in how the federal government approaches mental health in the aviation sector and vowed to work collaboratively to modernize the outdated system. A public statement the Association issued outlines recommendations for action, including developing a worker-education campaign to destigmatize mental health and explain the process from diagnosis to recovery, breaking down barriers that discourage aviation workers from seeking help, and establishing an FAA-funded national peer-support training program.

Ambrosi noted, “Protecting the safety of airline passengers, crews, and cargo is the foundation of ALPA’s work. By working with labor, government, and industry, we can make great strides in expanding mental health resources for pilots and other aviation workers and improving the outdated protocols for reporting, testing, and treatment.”

This article was originally published in the January 2024 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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