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No evidence for EASA pilot screening plans

by Dr Rob Hunter BALPA Head of Flight Safety

In the wake of the Germanwings tragedy EASA was tasked by the European Commissioner Ms. Violeta Bulc to establish a task force to “look into” the accident of Germanwings flight 9525 including the findings of the French civil aviation safety investigation authority (BEA) preliminary investigation report. The task force delivered a set of six recommendations to the European Commission on 16th July 2015.

  • That there should be two persons in the cockpit at all times
  • That there should be the psychological evaluation of pilots
  • That there should be random drug and alcohol testing and testing at initial medical certification
  • That there should be improved oversight of aeromedical examiners
  • That there should be measures taken to balance patient confidentiality with protection of public safety
  • That pilot peer support systems should be implemented.

The very odd thing about these recommendations is that they were delivered ahead of the BEA’s accident report. Of course we were mindful of the provisions that protect the independence of the national accident investigation body and so this prompted us to write to the UK CAA to ask to what extent the recommendations were based on the actual circumstances of the accident. The answer came back saying that the recommendations were not based on the accident, nor were they intended to be.

This obviously caused us concern as the messaging from the task force gave the strong message that the recommendations were much closely linked to the accident. Our concerns were further heightened when we looked into the evidential basis of the recommendations.

For example, if Lubitz did not have a problem with drugs and alcohol then what was the evidence that that drugs and alcohol are a problem in our section of the aviation industry? The worrying thing that has transpired since these recommendations were made is that in various regulatory documents following this tragedy studies of accidents are quoted in support of drug and alcohol testing. When we delve deeper into the raw data that these studies are based on we reach an opposite conclusion – the data suggests that there is not a problem of drug and alcohol misuse in large commercial air transport operations.

A similar situation exists in relation to psychological screening of pilots; the data does not support this type of intervention. However, when we try to engage the regulators on these matters there is a degree of stonewalling. Overall, on the basis of our enquiries in relation to drugs and alcohol, and in relation to psychological evaluations of pilots, we have the impression that these interventions are being driven politically rather than scientifically.

Our concerns were heightened when EASA announced that it proposed to implement the task force recommendations using ‘operational directives’. Such directives are intended to be used in the airworthiness arena when an urgent matter has been discovered that affects the safety of the fleet. These directives by-pass the normal rule-making procedure and become implemented within short timescales of around 60 to 90 days. The further odd thing is that the use of these directives implied that the Lubitz-type scenario was felt to be likely to be repeated again in the near future, yet our understanding of the tragedy that it was a very rare event and that in other accidents such as the Air France 447 crash, similar pitot icing events had occurred on many previous occasions without such precipitant action being taken by the regulators.

It has transpired that the co-pilot’s long history of psychiatric difficulties was known to the authorities but that just prior to the accident his condition had worsened, he had seen a psychiatrist who assessed him as unfit to fly, but in his psychotic (out of touch with reality) state he had decided to continue to fly.

On this basis, the task force recommendations in relation to psychological testing (the co-pilot was psychologically tested), drugs and alcohol, AME oversight (the AME was not at fault) would not have prevented the accident.

Moreover, it is important in the UK context to understand that the recommendation in relation to medical confidentiality would not change the situation in the UK and many other states where there is already the obligation for doctors to breach confidentiality in certain extreme circumstances.

Following a backlash by industry, including from BALPA, EASA’s current proposals are no longer to use operational directives to bring about these rule changes.

The two persons in the cockpit proposals have been downgraded somewhat as there is now the option for the operator to do a risk assessment to not have to comply with this rule.

But the proposals for drug and alcohol testing and the psychological evaluation of pilots remain and BALPA continues to challenge the evidential basis for these proposals. We are arranging to meet with the doctors involved in the task force to understand why they supported these recommendations.

There are some elements of the psychological evaluation proposals which are particularly worrying. At renewal medical examinations, there should be “a psychological assessment to include a review and documentation of interpersonal and relationship issues including difficulties with relatives, friends, and work colleagues… and any difficulties with employer and/or other colleagues and managers.”  Well, that this seems to capture most of the population!

It seems at this time that some of these assessments will be required to be undertaken by an “aviation psychologist” of which there are very few in the UK and the cost of these evaluations seems to be grossly underestimated. EASA have estimated this to be 175 Euros but at a recent workshop attended by psychologists they made it clear that this fee was unrealistic. For certain psychological conditions the FAA requires a standard battery of psychological tests and cost for such an assessment typically run at around 1,500 Euros.

The EASA proposals are subject to some consultation until October with implementation to follow by the end of this year. To be clear there are some positive elements to the proposals: peer intervention schemes are likely to become mandatory and operators are likely to have to introduce loss of licence schemes. However, the psychological screening elements are not evidence-based, they are not practicable, and they are expensive and potentially discriminatory.

The BEA report found the cause of the tragedy to be due –

“..to the deliberate and planned action of the co-pilot who decided to commit suicide while alone in the cockpit. The process for medical certification of pilots, in particular self-reporting in case of decrease in medical fitness between two periodic medical evaluations, did not succeed in preventing the co-pilot, who was experiencing mental disorder with psychotic symptoms, from exercising the privilege of his licence.

The following factors may have contributed to the failure of this principle:

  • The co-pilot’s probable fear of losing his ability to fly as a professional pilot if he had reported his decrease in medical fitness to an AME;
  • The potential financial consequences generated by the lack of specific insurance covering the risks of loss of income in case of unfitness to fly;
  • The lack of clear guidelines in German regulations on when a threat to public safety outweighs the requirements of medical confidentiality.

Security requirements led to cockpit doors designed to resist forcible intrusion by unauthorized persons. This made it impossible to enter the flight compartment before the aircraft impacted the terrain in the French Alps”