Yesterday, we looked at some of the immediate concerns regarding taking advantage of the FAA’s amnesty offer for pilots who have been diagnosed with one of three kinds of depression and who are taking one of the four approved medications. So now, that we’ve discussed a few of the immediate concerns, our focus shifts to long-term ramifications.
Several sources in administrative positions told me that a pilot’s confession of previous non-disclosure calls into question the ethics of the pilot. For a pilot to claim amnesty under this policy change, he must have been successfully treated with the medication for at least 12 months. This means that a pilot holding a first class medical has lied at least one time, likely more, in filling out paperwork with his Aviation Medical Examiner. The pilot has perjured himself on a federal document, which is a federal offense. It’s not unreasonable, then, for a supervisor to wonder, “If you’ve hidden this, what else are you hiding?” “Will you be objective enough to remove yourself from flight status if you are unsafe to fly?”
This kind of ethics question can undermine a pilot’s relationship with their current employer, no doubt, particularly if the relationship falls into the category of Less Than Warm and Fuzzy to begin with. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be an issue - the pilot’s denial of depression and treatment would be an event independent of any others. But, we don’t live in that world. We live in this one with all of our own human frailties, biases and prejudices as well as those of the people we work with and for. And, even if a pilot’s current employer is enlightened enough to see depression as a condition to be treated rather than something to be feared or stigmatized, what about the next one? Aviation is a notoriously fluid industry with companies starting up, failing and changing with a regularity that would alarm people in many other fields. If a pilot has a diagnosis of major depressive disorder and takes Celexa daily for the rest of his life, what if he is passed over for a new position or for a promotion based on that medical waiver? The pilot is not legally required to reveal the nature of his special waiver, but, in many circumstances, he may feel socially compelled to. If that admission in itself is used to justify termination or stagnation, at the moment, it does not appear that the pilot has any recourse. However, as I’ve said, HR rules are changing quickly and constantly; so, that issue may be addressed shortly either proactively or as the result of litigation.
Just as the private sector is filled with imperfect beings; so, is the FAA. People lose files; they go on vacation; they shuffle the priorities of their work days. Sometimes, in that process, a pilot’s file goes missing or it ends up at the bottom of the stack. To the FAA agent in Oklahoma City, it’s a file folder. To the pilot, it’s how he pays his mortgage and feeds his children. To the one person, it’s all in a day’s work. To the other, it’s the sharpest focal point of his life. Most of us who have worked closely with pilots in an operational setting have either known personally or known of a pilot who has had a special waiver of some kind. We’ve seen their process of dealing with it ranging from being a regular struggle to being a constant nightmare. It’s no wonder the pilots are expressing concern and even some distrust of the FAA. These pilots are under the care of their own physicians for this diagnosis and treatment regimen. Many of them see the FAA’s actions as redundant, intrusive, or even a threat to their livelihoods.
While disclosure may appear to be a threat to a pilot’s livelihood, there are consequences to be considered if that path is to be followed. The FAA’s Regional Flight Surgeon’s office pointed out that if a pilot chooses the path of non-disclosure and he is involved in an accident or an incident, toxicology tests will reveal the presence of anti-depressants. Regardless of the cause of the event, his non-disclosure leaves him especially vulnerable to criminal actions by the FAA and to civil actions by passengers or even the company he works for. If the accident is fatal, his family may not receive appropriate insurance or death benefits and his estate could be targeted in civil actions due to his perjury. So, the pilot has protected his career in the short-term, but left his family in a real mess.
On the one hand, you have a person who feels like he must lie to protect his job, his reputation and his status. On the other hand, you have a government agency with the right and the responsibility of oversight. At this early stage of this new special waiver, we’re seeing huge amounts of wariness on the one side and an inability to offer concrete assurances on the other. Until those two sides can get closer together, I’m not sure how successful the program will be in getting pilots to open up about their conditions, furthering one of the stated goals of the policy which is to remove the stigma from depression.
So far, we’ve considered the immediate effects of claiming amnesty and some of the longer term ramifications. Tomorrow, we will conclude this series by looking at the issue as a whole.
As always, we welcome your questions, concerns and comments, whether identified or anonymous.