Mental Health Rules for European Pilots to Be 'Strengthened'

Liam Davenport

August 25, 2016

The rules governing the mental health checks on pilots flying in Europe are set to be strengthened following publication of a series of proposed changes to the current rules by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

The proposed changes to the rules concerning pilots' medical fitness were initiated following the Germanwings Flight 9525 disaster on March 24, 2015, in which copilot Andreas Lubitz, who had a history of severe depression and had received treatment for suicidal tendencies, deliberately crashed the plane.

After publication of the initial findings of the technical investigation by the French Bureau d'Enquêtes et d'Analyses, the EASA established a task force in May 2015 to examine the adequacy of European air safety and security rules.

The subsequent recommendations were formulated into an action plan last October, which was then submitted for consultation following expert feedback provided at EASA workshops. The current proposed changes were published online August 15 by the EASA.

The aim is to strengthen both initial and follow-up medical examinations of pilots to include drug and alcohol screening, a comprehensive mental health assessment, and improved follow-up of individuals with a history of psychiatric conditions.

There will also be improved training, oversight, and assessment of aeromedical examiners and a requirement that aeromedical centers and examiners report all incomplete medical assessments to the authorities to prevent pilots from concealing mental health problems.

A spokesman for the EASA told Medscape Medical News that pilots face a lot of stressful events both in and out of the cockpit, such as irregular work hours, difficult weather conditions, operational needs to reduce costs, and family needs, all of which can affect their well-being.

Moreover, pilots, who can earn up to six-figure salaries, fear being grounded and losing their license. "They stand to lose the ability to earn that salary the minute a doctor says: 'Well, I'm sorry, but you're not healthy now,' " the spokesman said.

"It can be for things like diabetes...or it could be that they might be going through depression, and then they're also scared. What are they going to do? Are you going to go to your doctor and say: 'I just went through this divorce,' or 'I lost a first-degree relative, or a partner, and I am depressed and I cannot fly?' "

The current system merely requires that a pilot's physician or general practitioner ask a few general questions and then decide whether there is a problem that merits a referral to a psychologist.

Describing that process as "relatively thin," the spokesman said that the update to the regulations aims to "reinforce and strengthen" these checks, adding that "another very important point that the regulations talk about is the support that should be given to pilots," which "today does not exist."

Specifically, the EASA wants to create an environment in which pilots can talk about their professional or personal problems in a confidential manner and in which "they can receive advice on how to deal with those problems from fellow pilots that understand the workload, the environment, and how that affects their entire life."

The proposed changes were published as an opinion piece by the EASA on how Part-MED of Commission Regulation (EU) No. 1178/2011, which covers the medical side of air safety, should be updated.

They specify general medical requirements for pilots to obtain a medical certificate as well as requirements pertaining to mental health; the cardiovascular, respiratory, hematologic, neurologic, visual, and hearing systems; and pregnancy. The changes will also indicate requirements for aeromedical examiners.

The nature of the support that will be offered to pilots will be spelled out in more detail in the next set of proposed changes, called Part-OPs. This document, which will be published in October, will focus on the operational aspects of air safety.

The spokesman explained that it will be "much more extensive" than the Part-MED document and will contain many more procedural changes, "because this is about how you operate an airline in Europe."

Together, the updates will form the basis of proposed legislation by the European Commission toward the end of 2016. To support this, the EASA has developed draft guidance, called the Acceptable Means of Compliance and Guidance Material, which will be published in its final form once the legislation has been accepted by the Commission.

Crucially, the EASA does not anticipate that there will be any resistance to the changes from within the airline industry, as the proposals were made in consultation "with all the stakeholders, including pilot representatives, and it was understood that the changes improve flight safety," the spokesman emphasized.

EASA. Opinion No. 09/2016. Full text


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