New EU Rules Address 'Mental Fitness' of Pilots, Cabin Crew

 - July 25, 2018, 2:16 PM
A Germanwings Airbus A320 takes off from Cologne Bonn Airport. (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons (BY-ND) by SPOTTER.KOELN)

European Union airlines will have to perform a psychological assessment of their pilots before the start of employment and implement a policy to prevent and detect misuse of psychoactive substances by flight and cabin crew members, according to a set of new rules concerning mental fitness of air crew.

The changes to the current rules by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) stem from  the Germanwings Flight 9525 disaster in the French Alps in 2015. Investigators attributed the crash to deliberate action by copilot Andreas Lubitz, who suffered from a history of depression and took medication for the condition but did not inform his employer.

Psychoactive substances include alcohol, opioids, cannabinoids, sedatives and hypnotics, cocaine, other psychostimulants, hallucinogens, and volatile solvents, except for caffeine and tobacco.

The regulations require airlines’ psychoactive substances testing procedure to be objective, transparent, and non-discriminatory. Testing must occur upon employment, with unannounced testing after rehabilitation and return to work, the European Commission said in a written statement. The bloc’s carriers now must also give pilots access to a support program in case of psychological problems.

European Cockpit Association (ECA) secretary general Philip von Schöppenthau told AIN the lobby group, which represents more than 38,000 European pilots from national pilot associations in 36 European states, “fully supports EASA’s new air safety rules and hope they will be implemented in a uniform and consistent manner, across Europe.” That includes airlines whose pilots work under “atypical” forms of employment—via broker agencies, as self-employed pilots, or on zero-hour contracts. “[The ECA] is particularly supportive of peer support programs becoming mandatory for each and every airline in Europe, to allow pilots to receive timely support, advice, and, where necessary, treatment,” he added.

The regulation also tightens existing practices on alcohol testing. Random alcohol testing of pilots and cabin crew will become mandatory for all European and foreign airlines operating in the EU.

For most German airlines nothing changes because they have already established psychological assessments and support programs for pilots on their own initiative, German Aviation Association (BDL) spokesman Ivo Rzegotta said. “In fact, the existing programs of the German airlines were a blueprint for the regulation, which is now binding for all EU airlines,” he told AIN. “The new EU regulations therefore create one thing above all: a binding basis for all European airlines and thus even more safety in aviation.” 

Alcohol testing is nothing new either, noted Rzegotta. Since last year, German law requires airlines and authorities to carry out suspicion-independent tests of pilots for alcohol, drugs, and psychoactive substances.

Published in the Official Journal of the EU July 25, the regulation on mental fitness of air crew foresees a two-year transition period to allow airlines and the bloc’s member countries to establish the necessary infrastructure to comply with the new rules. EASA said it will issue acceptable means of compliance and guidance material to support their implementation.