EU watchdog urges expanded pilot mental health checks

BRUSSELS, Belgium – Europe's aviation watchdog on Friday, July 17, recommended expanded mental health and medical checks of pilots after a rogue airman apparently deliberately crashed a Germanwings jet in March, killing all 150 people on board.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said pilots should "undergo psychological evaluation" during training or before entering service and face random drug and alcohol tests, although investigators have not cited those substances as factors in the Germanwings tragedy.

"This report is the result of a thorough analysis with practical recommendations so that such a tragic event does not happen again," EASA executive director Patrick Ky said.

Some of the recommendations – like requirements for psychological, drug and alcohol tests – would likely require new legislation to take effect, EU officials said.

Investigators say that 27-year-old German co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who had a history of severe depression, intentionally slammed the Airbus A320 into the French Alps.

They say he locked the other pilot out of the cockpit during the March 24 flight from Barcelona to Duesseldorf, and then put the aircraft into a steep dive as his colleague tried desperately to break down the door.

French prosecutors said Lubitz, who suffered from psychosis, was terrified of losing his sight and consulted 41 different doctors in the previous five years, including psychiatrists as well as ear, throat and nose specialists.

Several of these doctors who were questioned by German investigators said Lubitz complained he had only 30 percent vision, saw flashes of light and suffered such crippling anxiety he could barely sleep.

Lubitz reportedly said, "life has no sense with this loss of vision."

However the doctors he consulted – including one who booked him off work two days before the ill-fated flight -- did not reveal his mental struggles due to doctor-patient confidentiality rules.

Ky said EASA's most important recommendation is one urging airlines to set up support systems allowing pilots suffering from mental health or medical problems to seek and get help.

Ky noted many career pilots may hesitate to deal with a problem because they do not know how to do anything else and "no longer being able to fly can be dramatic."

The watchdog said its task force of senior airline officials, flight crew associations and medical advisors tried to "balance medical secrecy and safety" in drawing up its recommendations.

Oversight of tests

It said airlines will have to ensure that the psychological evaluations are carried out properly.

More widely, it recommended "the establishment of a robust oversight program over the performance of aero-medical examiners."

In addition, a "European aeromedical data repository" would be a step toward sharing medical information about airline crew.

Violeta Bulc, the EU commissioner for transport, welcomed the findings of the study undertaken at her request.

"If improvements are to be made in European safety and security rules or in their implementation, in order to help prevent future accidents or incidents, we will take the necessary action at EU-level," she said.

EASA also endorsed one of its earlier recommendations that at least one qualified pilot and another crew member be present at all times in the cockpit.

It added it would look at the situation again in a year.

Many European airlines already enforced the two-person rule before the crash and others have adopted it since.

The watchdog carried out its review in parallel with the French investigation, whose final report on the crash is due in 2016.  – Rappler.com