July 17, 2015 / 10:09 AM / in 2 years

EU panel urges more pilot screening after Germanwings crash

An aerial photo taken from a helicopter shows the crash site of the Germanwings Airbus A320 and its debris on the mountainside near Seyne-les-Alpes, April 3, 2015. REUTERS/Lionel Bonaventure/Pool

LONDON/BERLIN (Reuters) - A task force set up after the Germanwings disaster has recommended improved psychological screening for new pilots, a European database with details of medical visits and better support networks to reduce the risks of a similar tragedy.

The panel 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. It delivered its findings to the European Commission on Friday.

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,” 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.

The psychological tests would apply only to new pilots because it would be difficult to implement this for all those currently flying, an EU official said.

Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz broke off his training due to a period of severe depression, but Germanwings parent Lufthansa has said he passed all medical and suitability tests again upon resuming training.

The EASA panel is proposing better support schemes to allow pilots or colleagues to come forward with concerns about health or other issues and discuss them confidentially.

Unions backed the proposal.

“It’s important for pilots not to want to hide problems because of the fear they will lose their jobs,” Markus Wahl, a spokesman for German pilots’ union Vereinigung Cockpit, said.

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 shift towards ensuring that there are always two people in the cockpit.

France’s BEA crash investigation agency has found that 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 on flight 9525.

    The head of the agency welcomed the EASA findings, even though it is still working on its own recommendations.

It is studying whether cockpit door-locking systems should be changed and how to balance safety with medical secrecy, a sensitive issue in nations such as France and Germany.

BEA Director Remi Jouty told Reuters that both areas raised difficult dilemmas.

“I can’t imagine a miracle solution (on cockpit doors) that would increase safety without weakening security,” he said.

One question to be examined is whether the rules can be changed without creating disproportionate risks, he added.

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.

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.

The BEA is looking at whether contacts between pilots and general doctors should also come under scrutiny, but officials agree such changes are likely to trigger a difficult debate about privacy that goes beyond aviation.

Additional reporting by Julia Fioretti in Brussels; Editing by Keith Weir and Susan Fenton

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