Germany reluctant to strengthen pilot checks on first anniversary of Germanwings crash

The EU has complained that Germany does not take into account recommendations concerning air safety. [Dirk Vorderstraße/Flickr]

EU authorities have criticised the German government for ignoring EU air safety recommendations and failing to bolster pilot medical checks, after the Germanwings tragedy that killed 150 passengers and crew members on 24 March 2015.

The final investigation report, released by French authorities (Bureau d’Enquetes et d’Analyses) on 13 March, concluded that Germany’s process of self-reporting, which allows pilots to indicate when their medical fitness is affected between periodic evaluations, failed to prevent the detection of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz’s mental illness.

Germanwings probe seeks 'clearer rules' on pilots' mental health

French investigators probing the Germanwings plane crash called yesterday (13 March) for “clearer rules” on the lifting of medical confidentiality if pilots show signs of psychological problems.

But German authorities have not offered any ‘mea culpa’ and had made little progress on correcting possible flaws, an EU official speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue told EURACTIV.

Moreover, Berlin has resisted European Commission’s efforts to better take into account passengers’ interest in their legislation, as the country continues to prioritise pilots’ right to privacy over public safety.

EU sources close to the dossier explained that the German authorities have been “reluctant” to amend their national laws. Doctors and pilots associations, and airlines in the country have resisted unveiling medical records in some cases as EU rules mandate.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is in charge of examining the correct implementation of all EU aviation rules, including pilot licensing and medical fitness rules.

A 2011 Commission regulation stipulates the rules for fitness checks of pilots. The regulation says that independent, specialised aero-medical examiners approved by the member states should check pilots’ psychiatric and psychological fitness for flying at least once a year.

Airlines are required to check the validity of their pilots’ certificate.

Besides, when there is a problem with the medical record of a pilot, a doctor cannot authorise the licence, and the dossier should be transferred to national authorities.

However, the German rules allow only for a partial transfer of the information. The lack of full access to medical records creates “safety concerns”, experts explained. This not only goes against EU law, but also the Chicago convention of the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

Non-compliance with EU rules

In regard to Germany, “in some cases”, EASA’s inspections result in findings “of non-compliance, which are communicated to the Civil Aviation authorities”, a Commission spokesperson said.

In this case, Germany should have produced a corrective action plan to address the findings.

But Germany has repeatedly neglected the recommendations issued by EASA over the last years, European sources explained.

They confirmed that Berlin has stood out as the least cooperative capital when it comes to dealing with the agency. For that reason, an infringement procedure in this field against Germany has been considered for many years.

The German Ministry of Transport did not respond to EURACTIV’s request for a comment.

The Commission decided to first take action in September 2014, six months before the Germanwings crash.

Due to the tragic incident, Brussels decided to keep a low profile during the first half of the year. Since Berlin did not fully adopt EU law, the Commission was ready to take action against the German authorities at the end of 2015.

Commission battles Berlin in aftermath of Germanwings crash

EU laws on air safety, in particular, rules affecting health checks for pilots, came under the spotlight after a Germanwings flight crashed on 24 March in the French Alps, killing 150 people.

But the EU executive decided to postpone the decision as the German government promised to propose new measures to bring its rulebook and practices in line with EU laws.

EU officials stressed that Germany started to amend its legislation recently only after the Commission threatened Berlin with opening an infringement procedure due to the lack of action.

Germany’s ruling coalition agreed last February on introducing amendments for strengthening controls for pilots.

According to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, airlines must be certain that aviation personnel are “competent and able” to “ensure a safe and orderly flight”, according to internal documents.

Germany intends to create an aero-medical database to tackle the issue of doctor shopping, in order to avoid it that pilots validate their certificates in member states where measures are more relaxed.

But Ulrich Lange, the transport spokesman for the CDU/CSU group in the Bundestag, stressed that data security would be of the utmost importance to secure “the important relationship of trust between pilot and doctor”, Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote.

Germany has not fully implemented various EU regulations (748/2012, 1321/2014, 1178/2011), specifically the rules for issuing pilot licences. EU officials considered that the existing EU data protection regulation ensures that member states have to strike the “appropriate balance” between patient confidentiality and the protection of public safety. However, German law prioritises the data protection of pilots’ information over the general interest of the passengers, reflecting the strong culture of data privacy embedded in Germany.

In the aftermath of the crash, a task force led by EASA issued six safety recommendations:

  • The 2-persons-in-the-cockpit recommendation is maintained. Its benefits should be evaluated after one year. Operators should introduce appropriate supplemental measures including training for crew to ensure any associated risks are mitigated.
  • All airline pilots should undergo psychological evaluation as part of training or before entering service. The airline shall verify that a satisfactory evaluation has been carried out. The psychological part of the initial and recurrent aeromedical assessment and the related training for aero-medical examiners should be strengthened. EASA will prepare guidance material for this purpose.
  • A mandatory drugs and alcohol testing as part of a random programme of testing by the operator and at least in the following cases: initial Class 1 medical assessment or when employed by an airline, post-incident/accident, with due cause, and as part of follow-up after a positive test result.
  • The establishment of robust oversight programme over the performance of aero-medical examiners including the practical application of their knowledge. In addition, national authorities should strengthen the psychological and communication aspects of aero-medical examiners training and practice
  • Creation of a European aeromedical data repository as a first step to facilitate the sharing of aeromedical information and tackle the issue of pilot non-declaration.
  • The implementation of pilot support and reporting systems, linked to the employer Safety Management System within the framework of a non-punitive work environment and without compromising Just Culture principles. Requirements should be adapted to different organisation sizes and maturity levels, and provide provisions that take into account the range of work arrangements and contract types.

As a follow up, the Commission has proposed the creation of a European aeromedical data repository. According to a Commission spokesperson, this common archive will give aero-medical examiners better access to the past medical history of pilots.

2016: EASA is expected to publish later in 2016 Operational Directives in the area of air operations and aircrew to address specific safety issues, including mandatory actions to implement the recommendations.

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