Europe’s Flight Crew Mental Health Rules Take Effect
New European commercial flight crew mental fitness rules took effect in February as a safety response to the 2015 Germanwings crash caused by a pilot suicide. The UK, no longer a part of the European Union (EU), is working to develop a similar set of regulations.
Under the new EASA rules, which mostly relate to pilots, airlines must perform start-of-employment psychological assessments and ensure that all pilots have access to a mental health support program. A third part of the rules requires regular substance-abuse testing for pilots and cabin crew.
According to EASA, many member states and airlines already had programs in place before the rules were drafted. The changes simply brought best practices into law. However, a six-month delay in implementing them caused unexpected problems for the UK, which came to the end of its Brexit transition period on Dec. 31, 2020, without the new rules in place.
“We had originally expected that the [EASA] legislation would transfer over once Brexit was finalized. But, in fact, because the regulation was not enacted at that time, that hasn't transferred in quite the way we expected,” UK CAA human factors program specialist Anna Vereker told delegates at the UK Royal Aeronautical Society Mental Wellbeing and Human Performance conference. “We are having a lot of good conversations with organizations who are trying to be proactive.”
According to industry sources, the UK’s rules are expected to come into effect around October this year, although there may be a 90-day grace period for implementation.
There are also some proposed differences to the EASA regulation, although these will only be confirmed during the rule-making process.
The EASA rules require all commercial air transport operators to offer a mental health support program for their cockpit crew. This usually takes the form of a peer-support program (PSP), where pilot-volunteers are trained to support their colleagues under the supervision of a mental health professional.
It is understood that the UK plans to adopt the peer-support and substance-abuse testing elements of the EASA regulation, but CAA has advised that start-of-employment psychological assessments, a mandatary EASA requirement, should be optional. This proposed change was triggered by industry confusion over the psychological testing requirements. Under EASA rules, this was not intended to be a mental health assessment. Instead, it aims to establish whether the pilot and the company are a good fit. There is also the risk of potential overlap with aeromedical examiner assessments, during pilot medicals, which cover mental health and fitness to fly.
CAA is understood to be keen to separate recruitment processes, which are aimed at establishing candidate suitability, from testing to predict future behavior, which the UK regulator believes lacks sufficient scientific/medical evidence. Instead, CAA plans to develop its own guidance on what non-mandatory psychological assessments should include, giving operators greater clarity and flexibility.
EASA plans to evaluate the effectiveness of its new rules by 2023. Given that little compliance data is available at this early stage, specialist service providers, like the Centre for Aviation Psychology, are among the few experts able to give insights on airline adoption levels.
“The picture is mixed,” the center’s business development director Aedrian Bekker said. “Most, if not all, of the big AOCs have got a peer-support program sorted out.” However, implementation is typically proving more challenging for smaller operators.
The center was established in 2016 as a commercial supplier of peer-support programs. The company now works with around 70 AOC holders, two-thirds of which are EU-based.
“We're the biggest third-party supplier of peer-support programs in Europe and in the world, and we've only been approached by maybe 150 AOCs over the past two or three years. Given that Europe's got 600 or 700 [AOCs], you’ve got to assume that there's a whole bunch who've either done nothing, have sorted themselves out, or are just waiting for the regulator to say something,” Bekker said.
The rules are now legally binding for EU operators, but EASA hopes airlines will see the value in offering their pilots mental health support, rather than being forced to through regulation.
“Like any trust-based system—and trust is fundamental for the good functioning of support programs—compliance with the regulatory provisions alone will not capture fully the effectiveness of such provisions,” EASA said.
Brussels Airlines and SWISS have rolled out pilot peer-support programs and are extending them to cabin crew, which goes beyond the EASA regulation. British Airways has a well-established peer-support program in place.
Many larger airlines were already beginning to act because employee mental health is increasingly a feature of “risk registers” at the corporate level. Once mental well-being is put alongside other business-critical risks, such as physical safety, financial exposure and legal compliance, it triggers a top-down push to identify, manage and minimize that risk. In short, it becomes a corporate compliance issue.
“It drives behavior right from the top, rather than somebody in the middle saying, ‘maybe we should do this.’ Especially when the companies are fairly big and there’s very clear lines of accountability, it's been fascinating to see how the rest of the company galvanizes into action,” Bekker said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also sharpened the focus on “rust-out”, where skills can become rusty through lack of practice. This has risk implications for pilots and other safety-critical personnel who may be emerging from the longest period of inactivity in their careers.
For now, it is unclear whether the mental health support and psychological testing parts of the EASA rules will ultimately be extended to other safety-critical personnel, such as cabin crew and engineers.
“There's a lot of people out there who are not covered by the regulation,” Kura Human Factors director Niven Phoenix said.
There has been some discussion with the EASA medical experts’ group about the possibility of extending medical certification, including mental health, for other categories of personnel, according to EASA medical expert, aircrew & medical department, Cristian Ionuț Panait.
“As these other categories are assessed under the national occupational health system—and are [therefore] not subject to the European aviation medical certification system—¬for the time being the activity has not proceeded further. If member states or the industry request this, or if we identify a need through our safety monitoring systems, then we may include that in a future rulemaking task,” he said.
Finally, psychological safety is also becoming a revenue-management issue. Airlines can take every hygiene precaution available to mitigate the risk of COVID transmission, but if a passenger feels unsafe to fly, they will not fly.
“All of this is about ethics. Addressing well-being and safety is about ethics,” Trinity College Dublin principal investigator Joan Cahill said. “It's really important to look at culture. And to move from a culture of safety, to a culture of health and safety.”