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Pilot lifestyle and staffing shortages add to spikes in job pressure

Being a pilot requires a high level of performance—day in, day out, year after year. And these stresses are being highlighted.
Pilot lifestyle and staffing shortages add to spikes in job pressure
Posted at 2:35 PM, Nov 11, 2023

When it comes to being a pilot, navigating your way through turbulence is part of the job. But what many folks don't realize is that the sky isn't the only turbulent spot in the lives of many pilots.

In recent weeks, a spotlight has focused on mental health after an off-duty pilot was accused of trying to turn off engines on a passenger jet mid-flight. That pilot later told authorities he believed he was having a nervous breakdown and had not slept for 40 hours. He also admitted to struggling with depression and had reportedly taken psychedelic mushrooms two days prior.

The incident has not only sparked concern but also raised questions about pilot pressures.

"We don't sleep in the same hotel every night, let alone the same bed. There is noises. It's warm; it's cold. You can't go to sleep right away because of tossing and turning. Or maybe you had a cup of coffee early in the afternoon," Reyné O'Shaughnessy said.

Reyné O'Shaughnessy is a former commercial pilot with more than 35 years of experience. She says being a pilot requires a high level of performance, day in and day out, year after year. A demand that, unsurprisingly, can take a toll on the mental health of those in the cockpit.

She says you can also add in the aspects of everyday life on top of that, and folks can quickly find themselves feeling overwhelmed.

"Our external pressures are exactly like anyone else's. We have divorce. We have illness. We have elderly parents, we have naughty kids, we have teenage kids, we have social media, we have financial problems. We have bankruptcies, we have sleeping problems. We have ... just, the list goes on and on and on," O'Shaughnessy said.

O'Shaughnessy says opening up about these issues can be especially difficult for pilots.

"In the airline industry, we are a very guarded bunch because of the regulations that regulate the aviation industry," O'Shaughnessy said.

She added that the regular medical checkups pilots have aren't effective at seeing non-physical ailments.

"What happens is, before you go into the doctor's office, you're asked to fill out this form. And the form pretty much is self-reporting. So if you don't self-report depression...," she said, "there's no way of noticing or evaluating someone's psychological well-being, because many times they look perfect to other people," O'Shaughnessy said.

She says many pilots opt not to report these struggles out of fear of repercussions that could keep them on the ground.

Scripps News reached out to the Federal Aviation Administration for an interview.

The agency just sent a statement that read, "Pilots must report certain mental health conditions to their aviation medical examiner during their regular medical exams. The FAA encourages pilots to seek help if they have a mental-health condition since most, if treated, do not disqualify a pilot from flying. During the last several years, the FAA has invested resources to eliminate the stigma around mental health in the aviation community, so pilots seek treatment."

SEE MORE: Investigator says close calls between planes show workers under stress

"I got to say, our airlines do have peer-to-peer groups, and they are wonderful, and they do a wonderful job with the resources that they have. But they are underutilized," O'Shaughnessy said.

The reason?

"They don't feel that they can trust someone with the keys to their livelihood," O'Shaughnessy said.

O'Shaughnessy is trying to change that with her organization, Piloting 2 Wellbeing, which works to promote aviation safety and mental well-being among pilots by providing them resources and support to tackle the pressures they are faced with.

"The motivation behind it was watching my colleagues suffer," she said. "It's amazing how many stories that you hear when you're in flight because it's just the two of you. And they open up because, I don't know, maybe I'm a good listener," O'Shaughnessy said.

She says that by addressing these stresses and improving health habits like sleep, exercise, and diet, pilots can avoid feeling grounded.

"When you're pushed and you're pushed to the max, you're maxed out; you're optimized. You can't optimize humans like you optimize mechanical engines. So now I think people are beginning to feel that crack in their engine, and they are hard down," O'Shaughnessy said.

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