President’s Corner, 4Q14, “Fit to Fly: Returning to the Cockpit.”

Fit To Fly: Returning to the Cockpit

In my previous column, I discussed potential causes of undiagnosed medical and psychological conditions that may interfere with a pilot’s ability to safely perform all of his/her duties. A presentation at the National Business Aviation Association’s 2014 annual Convention and Exhibition demonstrated numerous causes, but more importantly, the opportunity to recognize and treat these causes. In the majority of cases, most pilots were able to successfully return to the cockpit.

Responses from nearly a hundred pilots at the Business Aviation Safety Seminar identified barriers to evaluating the failing pilot. From a fellow pilot’s perspective, these factors include: fear of income or career loss, not wanting to get involved in personal matters of a fellow pilot, the feeling that another pilot can cover for and make up for weaknesses in the failing aviator, risk of friendship loss, medical certification concerns and denial.

From the company perspective, concerns included: fear of age discrimination suits, not having the resources to conduct an evaluation, no contractual ability to ground a pilot with a current medical certificate, inadequate sick leave and disability policies, unpredictable personnel costs or a lack of familiarity with FAA medical standards. The attendees expressed a need for having a company program in place, but no idea how to institute this safety measure.

The bottom line from respondents at both seminars is that the need exists to fairly evaluate pilots who are not performing up to standards, but that few companies have policies or programs that allow this. The result is ignoring the problem or moving to termination without evaluation. A Just Culture in the aviation department demands a rigorous identification and evaluation process with the ability to correct the problem and return a pilot to duty if appropriate. Safety depends on the Just Culture environment.

The good news is that elegant solutions exist to address this key safety issues. Better news is that pilots undergoing this process are likely to have causative and treatable conditions identified. The result is that a majority can be returned to the cockpit as a safe and productive crew member.

Preliminary data for over three dozen evaluations conducted by our office showed the age range of pilots identified included those from the mid-40’s to the mid-70’s. The primary cause identified was divided into approximately equal thirds. One third had medical problems as the cause, while another third had psychological causes and the final third had psychiatric causes.

Approximately two thirds of the pilots referred for evaluating were safely returned to duty after treatment and FAA clearance. Of the remaining third who did not return, half had medical conditions that were permanently disqualifying identified and the other half elected to retire before completing an evaluation. For those that were permanently disqualified, they were able to receive disability and loss of license benefits instead of being terminated without any financial support.

Overall, companies with Fitness For Duty evaluation programs reap the benefits of improved safety in a Just Culture while minimizing their legal and financial risk profile. Pilots in these companies benefited from enhanced health, financial protection and improved productivity. The three year goal of the NBAA Safety Committee’s Fitness for Duty working group is to build awareness of the need for and benefits of a corporate fitness for duty program and to deliver products of use to flight departments seeking to institute programs. The educational efforts will include webinars, printed materials and a series of presentations at many aviation safety seminars. For more information, contact the NBAA Safety Committee or this office.

Happy Holiday and Best Wishes for a safe and productive 2015.

Fly Safely! Stay Healthy!