Making Air Travel Safer

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After the Germanwings crash, the European Aviation Safety Agency laid down guidelines not just for pilots but also for aero-medical examiners. This could be a benchmark to make the skies safer in India too

By Shobha John


The tragic crash of the A-320 Germanwings plane in the French Alps in March 2015, which killed 150 people, made the aviation industry and regulators wake up to the dangers of pilots flying under psychological strain. There were numerous calls for psychometric/psychological tests for pilots after the flight’s co-pilot, who was said to be suffering from depression, crashed the plane into a mountain.

A few months after the crash, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) came out with a far-reaching “Action plan for the implementation of the Germanwings Task Force recommendations”. These guidelines could be used as a reference in India too by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation to lay down new rules and regulations. It lays special emphasis on aero-medical examiners, which in the case of India, is done by Indian Air Force (IAF) doctors. EASA’s taskforce included representatives from Air France; DGAC France; European Commission; UK CAA; Finnish Transport Safety Agency; Lufthansa; European Cockpit Association; Easyjet; British Airways; BEA France and FAA.

GOOD ASSESSMENT
According to Capt Shakti Lumba, a veteran pilot who was head of flight operations at IndiGo and Alliance Air, EASA arrived at these guidelines after a committee took a holistic view of the problem. “These guidelines are new as they provide achievable compliance. They correctly identified that the problem is not only with the pilot but with the current system of aero-medical pilot assessment,” he said.

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Pilots’ psychological welfare is of importance now

EASA said in its report: The crash “demonstrates that the safety of passengers can never be taken for granted and that the regulators have the duty to quickly adapt to a variety of challenges in a constantly changing environment”. These recommendations are meant to prevent such a disaster from happening again. Concrete action has been laid down in the areas of air operations, aircrew, information technology and personal data so that air travel becomes safe.

In an attempt to see that these guidelines are disseminated worldwide, EASA will, by the end of this year, have a global aircrew medical fitness workshop before a large audience of European and worldwide stakeholders to see how these recommendations can be implemented. Following this, concept papers about the actions proposed will be drafted. And in 2016, operational directives in the area of air operations and aircrew will be sent out by EASA to operators and national aviation authorities. This is the first time something like this is being done.

EASA GUIDELINES
These are the six recommendations of the EASA Germanwings Task Force:

  • There should be two persons in the cockpit.
  • All airline pilots should undergo psychological evaluation as part of the 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 aero-medical assessment and the related training for aero-medical examiners should be strengthened. EASA will provide guidance material for this purpose.
  • There should be mandatory drugs and alcohol testing as part of a random program 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 result.
  • Establish a robust oversight program over the performance of aeromedical examiners, including the practical application of their knowledge. National authorities should strengthen the psychological and communication aspects of aero-medical examiners training and practice.
  • National regulations should ensure that an appropriate balance is found between patient confidentiality and the protection of public safety. Create an aero-medical data repository as a first step to facilitate the sharing of aero-medical information and tackle the issue of pilot non-declaration.
  • Implement pilot support and reporting systems. These are linked to the employer’s Safety Management System within the framework of a non-punitive work environment.
  • Requirements should be adapted to different organization sizes and maturity levels, and provide provisions that take into account the range of work arrangements.

GLOBAL WORKSHOP
Coming to air operations, EASA recommends that all airline pilots should undergo psychological evaluation. It says that a global workshop should be held with representatives from at least the following organizations: IATA (International Air Transport Association), IFALPA (International Fede-ration of Airline Pilots Association), ECA (European Cockpit Association), EFT (Euro-pean Transport Workers’ Federation), IACA (International Air Carriers Association), ELFAA (European Low Fares Airline Association), NAAs (National Aviation Authorities), ECAST (European Commercial Aviation Safety Team), aero-medical examiners, medical experts providing training and aero-medical assessors, ESAM (European Society of Aerospace Medicine), Pompidou Group from the Council of Europe (Co-operation Group to Combat Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking in Drugs), European Workplace Drug Testing Society, FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and CAA Australia.

For aircrew, EASA’s recommendation is: The psychological part of the initial and recurrent aero-medical assessment and the related training for aero-medical examiners should be strengthened. According to Capt Lumba, this is a forward-looking move. “Psychological testing is an expertise not all aviation medical specialists possess. Till now, pilot medical requirements only required psychological evaluation if the pilot admitted a case of depression, etc. Now it will become part of the system, for which the committee will put in place evaluation standards and required training of the doctors.”

Checking the performance of aeromedical examiners is another new guideline. However, in India, the DGCA has outsourced medical assessment of civilian pilots to IAF doctors, who are already under tremendous pressure. With the growth in aviation, Capt Lumba says, civilian aviation medical experts are desperately needed. “The IAF will not be able to cope with the number of pilots coming into the system. To ease matters, the DGCA would need to work and apply its mind. It can do neither in its present avatar. It’s time some medical colleges started providing diplomas in aviation medicine post MBBS as a speciality.”

But an aviation medicine expert said on condition of anonymity that testing the knowledge of aero-medical examiners is already being done as all of them need to be specially qualified and experienced. “Also, the facility where the medicals are conducted are inspected to ensure adequacy. All aero-medical examiners are required to remain updated by attending DGCA-arranged Continued Medical Education programs once in two years,” he says.

PEER GROUP
There is another group which can help pilots in distress. Kanu Gohain, former DGCA, says: “While IAF doctors do the medical tests of pilots every six months, peer support examiners don’t get an opportunity to help their colleagues. It would be a good idea for airlines to support peer groups comprising their own company doctors and senior pilots. Day-to-day behavior of pilots can only be assessed by colleagues flying with them.”

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Kanu Gohain, Former DGCA

With regard to information technology, EASA recommends the creation of an aero-medical data repository as a first step to facilitate the sharing of aero-medical information and to tackle the issue of pilot non-declaration (of psychological problems). This, says Capt Lumba, makes immense sense. “In the European Union, pilot licensing of each member country is harmonized under a single EU license which is issued by individual member states but acceptable in all EU countries. This allows a pilot to move around switching jobs. Having an aero-medical data repository, therefore, is a far-reaching move.”

This pan-European medical certification also gives pilots the freedom to apply to an aero-medical examiner certified by any EASA state. A system to share aero-medical information in an efficient manner while protecting the data is important to minimize the risk of non-declaration. To implement this recommendation, EASA will draft the technical specifications for the development of the data repository by the end of 2015. The main hurdle will be the different approaches to personal data protection among member states of EASA. The target is to have the system in place by December 2016, including the production of a user guide.

However, in the case of India, says Gohain, the DGCA should mandate the IAF and private hospitals which check Class I medicals (pilot recruitment medicals), to maintain health records, especially psychological ones, so that this database can be assessed when needed.

With regard to data protection, EASA says there should be national regulations to ensure that an appropriate balance is found between patient confidentiality and the protection of public safety. To support this, EASA proposes to discuss the processing of personal (health) data during the envisaged global workshop, involving all relevant stakeholders, including representatives of national medical associations. In particular, the obligations of various actors should be addressed: operators, medical doctors, authorities and pilots. After the insight gained about minimum personal data, the various actors need to exercise their safety responsibilities.

These regulatory actions, guidance material and database will, in future, go a long way in making the skies safer.

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