BALPA is the professional association and registered trade union established to represent the interests of all UK pilots
John Moore
Head of Industrial Relations
Today marks two years since the Germanwings crash, arguably one of the biggest aviation tragedies in recent times. The horror of this crash was felt across Europe and almost immediately questions were raised by the families of the 149 victims and the public as to how this could happen. Why couldn’t the captain gain entry to the cockpit? Why was the co-pilot left alone? And as we discovered more about co-pilot Andreas Lubitz’s mental health history we were asked: how could someone with such issues be allowed to fly a plane?

The immediate reaction from airlines and EASA was to impose a two-person cockpit rule. But of course, a key factor in this particular case was that Lubitz had, in fact, been ruled as unfit to fly by doctors, but due to confidentiality laws in Germany (which aren’t practiced in most other European countries) the airline was never made aware. As a result of ongoing media attention on Lubitz’s mental health, and glossing over the fact that Lubitz wasn’t just suicidal but also homicidal, the questions had already been raised – should pilots be flying with depression? 

People, rightly, want answers and want to see something being done to ensure this never happens again. Since the tragedy in March 2015, EASA has been seeking to introduce new rules covering peer intervention programmes, drug and alcohol testing, and psychological testing. BALPA has been keen to ensure that these new rules are appropriate and effective, so we have continued to work closely with ECA, a group of UK employers, the CAA and the DfT, to ensure that the new rules actually work, and the interests of pilots are properly safeguarded.

Peer intervention programmes

EASA is planning to introduce new rules which will require all EU airlines to introduce a peer intervention programme as a way of addressing any problems (including drug and alcohol issues) which may have a detrimental impact on a pilot’s ability to perform their duties.  Importantly, peer intervention would also be used as a mechanism to provide professional support and assistance to individual pilots suffering from any problems, including drug and alcohol issues.

BALPA strongly supports this proposed way forward and has worked with airlines and the Regulator to produce a model peer intervention policy. This model policy is designed to form the basis of company-level peer intervention programmes agreed between BALPA Company Councils and the employer. A number of Company Councils are already in the process of agreeing peer intervention programmes in their company.

Drug and alcohol testing – including random testing

In addition to post-accident testing, EASA is proposing to introduce drug and alcohol testing when a pilot is first employed by an airline, when there is “reasonable suspicion”, and as part of a return-to-work/rehab programme. The European regulator is also proposing the introduction of mandatory random alcohol testing conducted as part of the ramp inspection programme. However, there would be an ‘opt out’ for airlines operating their own nationally-approved programme of random testing. 

BALPA supports testing in relation to the first three points raised above and has already agreed drug and alcohol policies in most airlines covering these scenarios. On random testing, the Association is not opposed in principle. We have, however, pointed out to EASA that drug and alcohol issues were not, as far as we know, relevant to the Germanwings crash and have questioned why they have been included as part of EASA’s proposals. We have also argued that the best way of addressing these issues is via peer intervention and that the emphasis should therefore be on building strong and effective programmes.  Notwithstanding these concerns, we do believe that the introduction of some form of mandatory random testing is now inevitable and that, given the choice, we would prefer to discuss and agree with employers suitable company-level random testing arrangements rather than be subject to random testing by ramp inspectors. As part of any company-level random testing arrangement CCs would seek to agree that any random testing is conducted before a pilot reports for duty, any pilots testing positive are directed into the peer intervention programme for treatment (rather than into any disciplinary procedure), and strong safeguards are in place to avoid or minimise any false positive test results.     

Psychological testing

EASA originally proposed the introduction of psychological testing when a pilot is first employed by an airline and when a pilot is seeking to renew their medical certificate following its suspension due to a psychiatric illness and/or a drug or alcohol problem. As a result of concerns being expressed by BALPA, ECA and other stakeholders, EASA has now removed the requirement for a psychological test when needing to renew their medical certificate following suspension for psychiatric illness. 

BALPA still has concerns about the effectiveness of any psychological testing on the basis that there are no reliable tests for accurately determining the true mental state of a pilot.  BALPA and ECA have also continued to point out to EASA that the use of psychological testing would, sadly, almost certainly not have prevented the Germanwings tragedy.  However, we acknowledge and support the removal of the need for a psychological test when a medical certificate is renewed following a psychiatric illness and/or a drug or alcohol problem, not least because a false positive result could have had potentially career-ending consequences for a pilot.  

We now expect EASA’s current proposals to be presented to member states in June 2017 but with no final decision being taken before autumn 2017. We anticipate that any new rules will be subject to a two-year transition period and will not therefore be fully implemented until autumn 2019.

Posted on 24 March 2017

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