FAA: A Prozac-Induced Change to Business?

By Robert Mark on April 6th, 2010

anti depressants Jetwhine The nice folks at Fox and Friends asked me to join a debate last Saturday morning about the new FAA rule allowing some pilots to fly while taking anti-depressant medications such as Prozac, Lexipro, Zoloft and Celexa, all designed to treat the symptoms of mild to moderate depression. My friends told me I should have been tougher on the guy I was debating with. How I did on the show I’ll let you decide.

Essentially the new FAA rule brings pilots together with the Feds, the folks who hold their livelihoods in their often bureaucratic paws. Until last week, a pilot taking any sort of anti-depressant would be immediately grounded, likely for life. Now at least, the Feds will consider a pilot’s situation on a case by case basis. No word yet on whether this new rule will eventually include air traffic controllers.

Pilots Flying on Drugs

While these anti-depressants are not recreational drugs, that kind of “Oh Lord, my pilot’s on Drugs” hysteria is precisely how some elements of the media have played the new FAA rule. The new regulation will not really allow a pilot to fly until after months of concentrated observation by the medical community. Doug Haldeman, a psychologist in Seattle wondered just how much industry chaos had already been caused by the agency’s refusal to acknowledge the fact that pilots have been flying completely untreated for depression for years, the same way many pilots have been dealing with alcohol addiction. He and I are of the same mind.

“So much depression in pilots has gone untreated,” he told me. “Some pilots have obviously been following the rules to their own detriment. But how do we get pilots [and the public]to consider their own mental health as a critical element of their on-the-job performance?” I’m glad the Feds have finally come to recognize that pilots are human too and share many of the same foibles as the rest of the world. But how many years did it take them to stop avoiding the issue of pilots that drink and fly. This latest move on anti-depressants seems to have been a much needed step. Haldeman added that, “We need to realize that these medications are designed to improve the functioning of people who take them.” We also need to realize that a pilot with un-treated depression is more of a liability than anyone who signs on to the FAA’s new rehabilitation program.

A Landmark Story

During my chat with Haldeman, the real story emerged when he asked an insightful question based on the relatively uncharted waters the FAA has just stepped in to. “So what’s next?” Is the new FAA ruling simply an answer to just one more ongoing aviation industry problem, or could this be the vanguard of a new direction by the agency? A culture change at FAA?

Having just returned from the NBAA’s International Operator’s Conference in New Orleans, the case for the differences between how Europe views its aviators and how we in do America was made all too clear. The Europeans – especially the English – very much like the idea of learning from past industry errors in order not to relive them. Here in the U.S., the punitive relationship between pilots, air traffic controllers and FAA is well known. We all knew, for instance, that nothing even remotely akin to trend setting was going to happen while either Bobby or Marion were in charge and we were right.

But people told me Randy Babbitt might just be a different kind of guy for a different kind of aviation world. His extensive experience as president of the Air Line Pilots Association means he’s certainly spent quite a bit of time on our side of the fence. He was ALPA president, in fact, when I flew for Midway, so I had some previous experience with him myself. But now as the head of the agency that holds the power over our lives, I’d say the jury is still out.

Is this just the beginning of a tidal wave of fresh thinking at the agency known for being ready to crush the certificate of a pilot or controller who doesn’t tote the line? Maybe. We can only hope. Let’s take a look again at Mr. Babbitt’s tenure on Labor Day.

For now though, thanks FAA. Some of us think you just might be on the right track.

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4 Responses to “FAA: A Prozac-Induced Change to Business?”

  1. Kim Welch Says:

    Rob,

    I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts on this new medical stance and on your tentative hopes for Randy being a different kind of FAA Administrator. Any kind would be better than what we’ve had for years.

  2. Bill Says:

    Not holding my breath to see if the FAA changes its head-in-the-sand, Politically Correct approach to things, but it would be a nice change.

  3. John M. White, ATP Says:

    My wife, who has a Private Pilot’s license, went on Prozac many years ago and I have had the chance to observe how it affects her.

    I can recall no times at which she ever had any suicidal tendencies, nor any unusual behavior. She has flown with me on many occasions, and has a keen interest in regaining her medical and continuing her flying.

    Finally, someone at the FAA is using their head rather than reacting to some unsubstantiated public reporting.

    Way to go FAA!

    John (JetAviator7)

    John M. White, Entrepreneur and Internet Publisher

    http://all-things-aviation.com/blog

  4. Prozac Pilot Says:

    I grounded myself two years ago when I went on antidepressants. At the time I was working as a charter pilot. My decision brought my career to an complete halt. Now there is hope I can once again return to what I love to do. CNN has actually interviewed me and the segment will air on the American Morning show. At this point it looks like my interview will be Friday morning April 16th.

    Thank you for your work.

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