In February 2022, all UK Air Transport Operators are mandated to implement a pilot Support Programme which includes using trained Pilot Peer volunteers. The support programme is intended to help facilitate flight crew health and wellbeing.
What is Pilot Peer Support?
In recent years, several incidents that have highlighted a need for greater flight crew mental health and wellbeing support. A task force by EASA explored the safety concerns related to flight crew wellbeing. It made a recommendation for all Commercial Air Transport operators to provide pilot support and a reporting system concerning psychological wellbeing. A key component of this system is the implementation of a Support Programme for the entire flight crew. The support programme is designed to inform and educate pilots on their wellbeing and health.
Peer support is a structure whereby a flight crew member can obtain confidential help with mental health, wellbeing or life stress issues. At the heart of the support programme are Pilot Peer volunteers – usually fellow pilots that are trained in basic listening and coaching skills to assist their colleagues. Peers should be supported by a suitable qualified Mental Health Professional, a clinical psychologist, who preferably, has knowledge and professional experience of the aviation sector. The aim is to provide flight crew with an opportunity to discuss, resolve or maintain their wellbeing in a confidential and trusted environment.
Evidence from existing programmes, both in the UK and overseas, suggests that effective peer support can satisfactory address around 85-95% of pilot wellbeing questions, without the need to seek further help or assistance1.
Why is the role of peers significant?
Research suggests pilots can be reluctant to share and talk about their mental health and wellbeing – sometimes, not even to their spouse due to a fear of losing their licence, livelihood, and social status. However, there is a tendency to open up to fellow aviators who share the same experiences, stressors and understand life in the cockpit.
An effective Support Programme requires involvement from senior management, mental health professionals and trained peer volunteers to facilitate referral, advice, counselling, and treatment where necessary. The concept of peer volunteers is a key element within the Support Programme. Access to peers provides an opportunity for crew members to contact someone who understands their working environment and the challenges that they face daily. Trained peers can support their fellow flight crew colleagues who need help with their concerns.
Peer volunteers must be independent of management. It is essential that they have access to medical or clinical expertise should they need advice with more complex cases. The operator must work to guarantee confidentiality to encourage the use of the programme, and the honesty of those who need it.
Evidence from pre-existing peer support programmes
The concept of peer support is not new. The first known Peer Assistance Network (PAN) was established in 1991 by the Australian and International Pilots Association to support flight crew in the Qantas Group. The PAN focused on the emotional fallout of the 1989 industrial action. Project Wingman, formed by American Airlines in 2011, today represents 15,000 pilots and handles thousands of calls a year.
Evidence from pre-existing peer support programmes has demonstrated that when a programme is effectively implemented, aircrew seeking support have less chance of harmful outcomes when dealing with the stressors and anxiety of life influencing events. Typically, this can enable a swifter return to active duty by earlier identification and assistance of issues and, when appropriate, dissuasion from active duty when flight safety is at risk.
Pilot Peer Training by the UK CAA
To support organisations with Pilot Peer assistance, we have launched a dedicated Pilot Peer training course. The course provides delegates with the skills, knowledge and behaviours, as a Peer, to become confident in delivering Pilot Peer Assistance to flight crew under a Commercial Air Transport operator’s Support Programme.
1 RAeS Flightcrew Mental Health Conference May 2019. Capt. D Fielding.