Some pilots taking medication for mild or moderate depression will be able to fly as soon as next week under a new government rule aimed partly at getting those taking antidepressants to disclose the treatment.
The new policy, which takes effect Monday, reverses a ban on flying for pilots taking medications like Prozac. Federal Aviation Administration officials said the old rule was based on outdated versions of antidepressants that could cause drowsiness and other side effects.
The medications have been updated and do not pose that risk with everyone, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt told reporters Friday. But there was a side effect to the policy that has now been abrogated, Babbitt said. That rule had resulted in pilots taking those medications to keep their depression and treatment a secret, under the threat of losing their certification to fly.
"Our concern is that they haven't necessarily been candid," Babbitt said.
"We need to change the culture and remove the stigma associated with depression," Babbitt said. "Pilots should be able to get the medical treatment they need so they can safely perform their duties."
Under the new policy, pilots who take one of four antidepressants Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa or Lexapro or their generic equivalents will be allowed to fly if they have been successfully treated by those medications for a year without side effects that could pose a safety hazard in the cockpit. The antidepressants are classified as SSRIs, which help regulate mood.
In addition, the FAA will grant a sort of amnesty for pilots who have kept their treatment for depression a secret. The agency will not take civil enforcement action against pilots who, within six months, disclose their diagnoses of depression and treatment.
FAA officials said they changed the policy in part to encourage disclosure, but also because their own research by a team of psychiatrists over the past two years showed that the antidepressants have advanced to the point where side effects don't affect everyone and often subside in time. The risk of safety hazard, therefore, has subsided, the agency concluded.
Several labor unions representing aircraft owners, pilots and crews had urged the government to lift the ban. The Army, the Civil Aviation Authority of Australia and Transport Canada already allow some pilots to fly who are using antidepressant medications.
A team of psychiatrists and aviation medical examiners will help the agency monitor pilots under the new policy under a program established 40 years ago to assess and treat pilots suffering from alcohol and drug abuse issues, the FAA said.