EU panel urges pilot screening after Germanwings crash

Task force also calling for random drug, alcohol testing of pilots
By Tim Hepher and Victoria Bryan
|hrreporter.com|Last Updated: 07/17/2015

LONDON/BERLIN (Reuters) — In the wake of the Germanwings disaster, all airline pilots should undergo psychological screening and allow details of medical visits to be shared in a proposed European database, according to new recommendations delivered to EU officials.

A task force of experts led by Europe's aviation safety regulator also called for the introduction of random drugs and alcohol testing of pilots and better oversight of the doctors responsible for their regular medical checks.

European Union Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc ordered the review after a young pilot barricaded himself inside the cockpit and crashed a Germanwings jetliner into the Alps in March, killing all 150 people on board.

Prosecutors have found evidence that the co-pilot, who had suffered severe depression and may have feared losing his job, had researched suicide methods and concealed an illness from his employer, sparking a debate on supervision and medical secrecy.

"We don't know everything that happened in this tragedy but we know a certain number of causes and we thought we may not want to wait until the final report of the accident investigation to launch actions," Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), told Reuters.

The idea is to "minimize the risk of a similar tragedy in the future", he said in an interview.

Alongside the extra testing, the panel is proposing better support schemes to allow pilots to come forward with concerns about their health, careers or other problems and discuss them confidentially without "an atmosphere of fear".

That would go beyond the traditional regulations and may have alerted colleagues sooner to the condition of the Germanwings pilot. Unions say it would represent a marked change of culture for the toughly managed airline industry.

Cockpit doors

The EASA task force — drawn from airlines, flight crews, doctors and aviation authorities — did not recommend changes to cockpit doors that were specially strengthened after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

But it endorsed a recent EASA recommendation that there should always be two people in the cockpit.

France's BEA air crash investigation agency has found that Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz took advantage of toilet breaks by the captain, both to rehearse the maneuver on the previous flight and then to carry out his plan to destroy the jet after locking the captain out on the return flight 9525.

The BEA is investigating separately whether cockpit door-locking systems should be changed and how to balance medical confidentiality and safety, a sensitive issue in nations such as France and Germany with a strong tradition of medical privacy.

The medical database proposed by EASA would initially only record the dates and places of specialist 'aero-medical' check-ups and whether a pilot had been deemed fit to fly.

That would not have helped in the case of Lubitz, who is suspected of concealing notes written by a general practitioner, but would prevent what Ky called "medical tourism" or going abroad to get a favorable certificate for the pilot licence.

"We don't have evidence that it is a massive problem, but it is a problem," he said.

EASA called for a deeper examination of medical secrecy in all 28 EU nations. Some such as Britain already advise doctors to report any concerns where public safety is at stake.

"We know this is going to be the most difficult topic in our recommendations, but we really believe that if nothing is done ... then the risk is still high of having pilots who are medically unfit ... continuing to be pilots," Ky said.

"When lawmakers see the balance between the right to protect personal information and the right of the public to be safely transported, I am pretty sure there are ways to deal with it."

He said the introduction of random drugs and alcohol tests for pilots and others with critical roles such as controllers would address a gap in current rules and was "common sense".

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