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Europe to vet pilots for mental illness after Germanwings crash

Friday, July 17, 2015 - 20:28

[TOULOUSE] Europe's air-safety regulator said would-be pilots will be screened for mental illness and those who make the grade subjected to random drug tests to help prevent a repeat of March's Germanwings crash, in which a suicidal airman slammed his jet into a mountainside.

Airlines will be required to send prospective hires for psychological evaluation intended to reveal danger signals, the European Aviation Safety Agency said in findings based on the crash in the French Alps, which killed 150 passengers and crew.

At least seven fatal incidents are reckoned to have been intentionally caused by pilots since 1982, including the Germanwings loss, which investigators say happened when co-pilot Andreas Lubitz crashed the Airbus A320 after locking his captain out of the cockpit. Lubitz was later found to have been mentally unstable and undergoing medical treatment for depression.

"We are proposing to make mandatory at least one thorough psychological assessment for each pilot," EASA chief Patrick Ky said in an interview after the new requirements were published. "Currently this is no mandatory psychological assessment at all, though a number of airlines already do it."

With France's accident investigator likely to take as long as two years to finish its report, Mr Ky said EASA felt issues already thrown up by the tragedy needed to be "tackled urgently." The safety body usually waits until after full technical studies are in before commenting or making rulings.

EASA is working with psychologists and other experts to define what kind of tests should be applied and any regulations would be subject to the agreement of the European Commission and other interested parties. Psychological testing would likely start in 2016, though would be only for new hires. Existing pilots would not have to undergo tests, but would be subject to unannounced drug and alcohol checks.

An EASA task force set up after the crash involving Deutsche Lufthansa AG's discount arm also made recommendations on cockpit door locking systems, as well as other procedures for monitoring and supporting pilots.

A stop-gap rule requiring two people on the flight-deck at all times should be kept in place and re-evaluated after another year, it said. The exit of Lubitz's captain to use the toilet, leaving him alone, gave the co-pilot an opportunity to put his plane on collision course with the ground.

To be sure, airlines are allowed to impose stricter measures than those mandated by law, and many do. EasyJet Plc subjects pilots to extensive regular medical assessments that include mental health checks.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which sets rules for US airlines and foreign carriers flying there, recently created a panel of government and industry officials to suggest ways of improving the evaluation of fitness to fly, with the focus on how doctors should assess psychological health.

Lubitz passed an FAA medical exam while training as a pilot in the US, according to agency records. French and German prosecutors have said he was suffering mental problems not fully apparent to his employer due to privacy laws designed to encourage people to consult doctors without fear of dismissal.

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