EASA Pilot Mental Fitness Proposal
The Language Used Raises Questions & Possible Interpretations
The Germanwings tragedy continues to reverberate in the regulatory context. On December 9, 2016 EASA published a proposal to the European Commission on new operational rules to better support pilot mental fitness. EASA’s proposal is part of its Action Plan following the Germanwings Flight 9525 accident.
Six months ago the FAA issued guidance, based on the expertise of a team of people with greater insight into and experience with this complex issue. They designed a continuous program for pilot mental health. The Administrator chartered an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) comprised of aviation and medical experts (see Appendix A of the ARC Report on the guidance of an ARC).
The European response is very similar to the FAA’s; EASA issued Air OPS implementing rules (IRs), which can be summarized as follows:
a. “Preventive measures such as:
- carrying out a psychological assessment of the flight crew before commencing line flying;
- enabling, facilitating and ensuring access to a flight crew support programme; and
- performing systematic drug and alcohol (D&A) testing of flight and cabin crew upon employment.
b. Corrective and follow-up measures such as performing flight and cabin crew D&A testing:
- after a serious incident;
- after an accident;
- following a reasonable suspicion; and
- unannounced after rehabilitation and return to work.
c. A complementary measure: mandatory random alcohol screening of flight and cabin crew within the ramp inspection programme to ensure an additional safety barrier.”
Much of the IR involves the normal array of remedial actions; for example, making support available to all flight crew makes tremendous sense.
However, the recommendation that a “psychological assessment of the flight crew [be accomplished] BEFORE COMMENCING FLYING,” while highly commendable, seems impractical. The language of the proposal raises a number of practical questions/interpretations:
- Flight crews initiate line flying at least once a month, if that that is what EASA meant by “commencing.” Under such a requirement, it could have impact on the preparation time for flights which begin a schedule of flying; each member would have to undergo that “test” before heading to the airplane.
- The predicate to “commencement” may not be just the ordinary break in scheduling, but only is invoked after a significant break, like 30 or 60 days, in the individual’s flying schedule. That interval might make more sense, if that is the intention.
- Does “flight crew” mean cockpit and cabin crew?
- What constitutes a “psychological assessment.”
- Is there some series of questions which are reasonably expected to interdict anyone who is having mental problems?
- Wouldn’t the individual administering the “assessment” have to be trained to make such an important determination?
- What is the likelihood of a false positive assessment?
- If a crew member is identified through such a pre-commencement assessment, will he/she have access to counseling without punitive impact? Is not misrepresenting an individual’s fitness for duty ordinarily cause for discipline?
- Does the assessment go beyond psychological fitness? Fatigue, alcohol consumption and drug influence are all more detectable in a field context and may be a more frequent impairment.
One might expect that the unions will ask these and other questions.
Mental competence is an incredibly important aviation safety concern. It is, however, extraordinarily difficult to detect. Any determination of deficiency of a crew member could permanently impact an individual. Fashioning a sensible but strong solution is clearly important for EASA, FAA and all CAAs. Most of the IRs proposed seem to be intuitively correct. The “commencement” “assessment” looks to be the most exacting aspect of the EASA’s work product. However, there seems to be some significant ambiguities which (a) need to be resolved and (b) depending on the definitive answer, may need some refinement.