March 2016 will witness the sad anniversary of Germanwings Flight 9525, in which 150 people tragically lost their lives. It is also when the final accident investigation report is expected from BEA, the French accident investigation body, providing facts and results of their in-depth investigation.
And while most in the industry consider this as a ‘Black Swan’ event – i.e. too rare and too exceptional to predict and effectively prevent – EU aviation stakeholders, including the pilot community, have been busy looking into how to make a ‘Germanwings scenario’ less likely in future. Various issues have been identified that need to be addressed in any case – in order to make a safe industry even safer in future.
In the focus: mental health
As a member of the Germanwings Task Force - set up by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) after the accident-, ECA, right from the beginning, has provided the pilots’ perspective and expertise to what resulted in 6 Task Force recommendations, an EASA Action Plan, and – more recently – a series of EASA Concept Papers with proposals on how to move forward.
Among the possible steps - currently considered -, is to put mental health of air crew more at the centre of the system. For example by adding a psychological evaluation at the very beginning of a career, i.e. before a pilot even enters a flight school. Adding a psychological evaluation at this stage would indeed be a positive measure. It would further enhance the initial selection, and subsequent training, which already today contribute to the fact that – generally speaking – the population of pilots is conscientious, resilient, and emotionally stable.
Equally helpful would be the proposal to strengthen the psychological / mental health part of the initial & recurrent aeromedical assessment, and to strengthen the related training for Aero-Medical Examiners (AME). Such an assessment would have to be based on a trust relationship between the pilot and the AME, as well as on the firm understanding that any information disclosed to AMEs that does not directly impact on fitness to fly remains confidential between pilots and AMEs. Otherwise, trust will be hard to build, and mental issues – caused by a multitude of psycho-social triggers in today’s fast-changing, high-pressure aviation environment – would remain hidden and unresolved.
However, mental health must be addressed in a proactive and positive manner. Especially since the external stressors tend to increase, with atypical employment forms on the rise – especially for young pilots–, with productivity levels up, and with air crew fatigue being an issue.
The importance of Peer Support Programmes
This is why the most promising recommendation from EASA’s Task Force is probably the one on ‘Peer Support Programmes’ - PSP (or ‘Peer Intervention Programmes’). Such programmes already exist in many companies across Europe and beyond – like in the US, Canada, South Africa etc. – and have proven to be very successful to identify pilots in need of professional help, to treat them and, where possible, to guide them back to the flight deck. While today these programmes cover mainly substance abuse – especially alcohol –, they need to be extended to mental health issues, to be able to provide help to those who go through difficult times.
It is, therefore, reassuring that EASA’s recent Concept Papers propose to make PSP mandatory across Europe to ensure they are available in each and every company and every EU Member State. To make this a success, best practices from existing Programmes – like Mayday Foundation, the Dutch ASG, or the Canadian HIMS programme – should be built upon, to create a ‘safe harbour’ for pilots and cabin crew to turn to – or to be referred to by their peers! – allowing them to get adequate help and treatment, rather than hiding issues out of fear to lose their license, job and livelihood.
PSP for drug & alcohol tests
PSP are also the best framework to deal with drug and alcohol abuse, where these programmes have shown their greatest impact so far. Data from the US, for example, shows that PSP are 10 times more effective in identifying and helping crews with substance abuse than random testing.
While drug & alcohol testing is necessary after an accident/incident as well as ‘with due cause’/’upon reasonable suspicion’, unlike PSP,random testing has proven to be relatively ineffective and very costly. However, random testing does have its place in the overall package of measures to improve aviation safety. And this place is within a PSP, where it is targeted at individual crew members that went through the programme and are admitted back to the flight deck. In this case, as the Canadian HIMS programme has demonstrated over the past decades, mandatory random testing is required and perceived effective.
Hence, while this 1st anniversary of the Germanwings tragedy will be a sorrowful event, at least the ‘European machinery’ had not been inactive. All stakeholders have worked hard together to identify useful and effective measures – and to discard ‘bogus’ solutions that look good for politicians in the media but do little to address the real issues. The final word is yet to be said, but Europe’s pilot community will continue to contribute to finding adequate solutions– to the benefit of flight safety.