EASA’s response to Germanwings should include recommendations beyond the regulators

EASA Germanwings Response
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EASA’s Regulatory Framework to Address Pilot Mental Health

Regulations Aren’t the Only Safety Measures That Can Be Taken

EASA has issued a well-considered regulatory framework to address cockpit mental health issues. The FAA’s ARC report suggested including some interdiction points beyond the government.

Ever since March 24, 2015 crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 exposed the horrible possibility that a licensed pilot could commit suicide and murder everyone else aboard, aviation authorities have searched for regulatory reactions to that horrid possibility. The FAA chartered an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) comprised of aviation and medical experts (see Appendix A of the ARC Report) to explore what might be done in a reasoned and proactive basis. The ARC recommended these responses:

  • “In January, the FAA began enhanced training for Aviation Medical Examiners so they can increase their knowledge on mental health and enhance their ability to identify warning signs.
  • Airlines and unions will expand the use of pilot assistance programs. The FAA will support the development of these programs over the next year. These programs will be incorporated in the airline’s Safety Management Systems for identifying risk.
  • The FAA will work with airlines over the next year as they develop programs to reduce the stigma around mental health issues by increasing awareness and promoting resources to help resolve mental health problems.
  • The FAA will issue guidance to airlines to promote best practices about pilot support programs for mental health issues.
  • The FAA will ask the Aerospace Medical Association to consider addressing the issue of professional reporting responsibilities on a national basis and to present a resolution to the American Medical Association. Reporting requirements currently vary by state and by licensing and specialty boards.”

EASA Germanwings Response

These initiatives were well received by the stakeholders and the public as responsive but not over-reacting.

EASA Germanwings ResponseEASA, with the investigating BEA within its jurisdiction, had heavy public expectations, initiated an advisory group. That task force reported its findings quickly. In what is called an Opinion, the regulator issued its views as to the safety issues raised by Flight 9525 and articulated measures, which were both appropriately efficient and proportional to the risks identified.

Annex IV (Part-MED) to Commission Regulation (EU) No 1178/2011 is where EASA lists its safety rules as to pilots’ health/fitness. As both rulemaking tasks (RMTs), RMT.0287 [included in the Agency’s 5-year Rulemaking Programme] and RMT.0700, amend the provisions prescribed in Part-MED, EASA decided to merge the outcome of the respective consultations and publish one Opinion on the update of Part-MED to prevent any inconsistencies that may emerge during the rulemaking process.

The Opinion is 23 pages long and here is a useful summary of how EASA intends to amend its current regulatory scheme:

  • “Strengthening the initial and recurrent medical examination of pilots, by including drugs and alcohol screening, comprehensive mental health assessment, as well as improved follow-up in case of medical history of psychiatric conditions;
  • increasing the quality of aero-medical examinations, by improving the training, oversight and assessment of aero-medical examiners;
  • preventing fraud attempts, by requiring aero-medical centres and AMEs to report all incomplete medical assessments to the competent authority.
  • These proposals have been subject to consultation with all concerned stakeholders. They address relevant safety recommendations made after the Flight 9525 accident by the EASA-led Task Force, as well as by the French “Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses.”

In support of this European equivalent of the US’ NPRM process, EASA will:

(a) Publish on the Agency’s website of preliminary concept papers on how to address the recommendations of the Germanwings Task Force. The objective of this publication was to provide for a more focused discussion during the workshop (see point (b));

(b) Conduct an Aircrew Medical Fitness workshop on 7 and 8 December 2015; and

(c) Convene a 4-week Advisory Bodies’ consultation of the final concept papers addressing the feedback received by the aviation community during the workshop

These inclusionary steps are directed at the CAAs, AMEs and aero-medical centers as parts of the EASA governmental network.

The FAA recommendations (above, see italicized sections) involve to a greater extent the airlines, unions and individual flight crews.

Mental health is not a still photograph; it is a movie with images of one’s stability changing over time and responding randomly to any number of catalysts. A psychiatrist can see a patient/pilot regularly at specific intervals in time, as may be required by some tougher new regulation. At that appointment, a determination can be made that (s)he is fine. Days or weeks thereafter the same individual’s ability to cope could be lost.

The FAA’s holistic approach for mental health can and should follow that adopted in the new Part 117 for fatigue a similarly insidious. That final rule recognizes that the likelihood is low that an individual will declare that (s)he is unfit as to fatigue. The FAA’s solution is to expand the band of people who have responsibility assessing whether a cockpit crew member is tired or not. Fellow pilots and management are expected to be part of a network to identify specific behaviors which are symptoms of fatigue. The new scientifically based approach includes a fatigue risk management system (§117.7) and a fatigue education and awareness training program (§117.9). That appears to be a better way to identify individuals who may be too tired to assume duties in the cockpit. That 24/7/365 scope should do well for mental health, too.

Airlines, unions and fellow crew members are present with all pilots and from such observations may, with proper training, be better equipped to detect the symptoms, which likely preceded the Germanwings tragedy. Hopefully, with increased sensitivity, a friend or peer or manager could respond to an incipient problem.

Opinion No 09/2016 lays out excellent strategies to deal with this subtle risk to aviation. It would be worthwhile for EASA to include in its preventative network the women and men who work side-by-side with persons who may be suffering mental issues.


ARTICLE:  Opinion 09/2016 Update of Part-MED (Annex IV to Commission Regulation (EU) No 1178/2011)
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