European airlines have until the third quarter of 2020 to comply with EASA’s aircrew mental fitness regulations, which were introduced in the wake of the 2015 Germanwings pilot-suicide crash.

Germanwings copilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately flew an Airbus A320 into the French Alps in March 2015, killing 149 people along with himself. That kicked off a regulatory response by the European Union that resulted in new mental fitness regulations, spanning three key areas: psychological testing, pilot support and substance testing.

Under the new rules, which were finalized by EASA in July 2018, all pilots working for European airlines must have access to a support program to help them to recognize, cope with and overcome problems that could affect their ability to operate safely.

Speaking at the Royal Aeronautical Society Aerospace Mental Health and Wellbeing Conference in London May 22, Center for Aviation Psychology clinical and aviation psychologist Rob Bor said the clock is now ticking.

“By 2020 everyone has to have something in place. Whether they buy into a national [pilot support] program or whether they’ve done their own indigenous version, they will need to be compliant by that point,” Bor said.

British Airways (BA) already has a peer-support program in place and all German carriers are covered by a national nongovernmental organization, Stiftung Mayday (Mayday Foundation), which was formed in 1994.

When asked about readiness levels, Bor said: “It varies between the airlines.”

In the case of BA and Stiftung Mayday, volunteer pilots receive training and support their colleagues under the supervision of a clinical psychologist.

“You can’t just say we’ve got an employee assistance program that will do. It won’t,” BA A380 pilot Dave Fielding said.

In the immediate aftermath of the Germanwings tragedy, Stiftung Mayday sent pilot peers to nine Germanwings bases, supported by qualified mental health professionals. The organization now has 200 volunteers, helping 600 to 800 pilots a year. The foundation has helped set up similar support networks in Austria, France, Italy, South Africa and the US.

Stiftung Mayday founder Gerhard Fahnenbruck, who is also a Lufthansa CityLine pilot and aviation psychologist, said peer-assistance programs also make good business sense, because they help pilots return to work after mental health incidents. He estimates savings of €50,000-€1 million ($55,795-$1.1 million) per pilot, depending on seniority and aircraft type, because of the high cost of replacing pilots when they leave.

On May 23, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) launched a survey, in partnership with mental health organization Mind, to ask commercial airline pilots what they would want from a peer-assistance program. The 15-min. survey will run until June 14.

“The point of the survey is to tell me what ‘good’ looks like, so I can sit in the room with [aircraft] operators and providers and support what they’re doing, knowing that it’s what the pilots want,” CAA lead for pilot-peer assistance networks Nick Goodwyn said.

This is just one example of how things are moving along. “It seems everyone is waking up now,” European Pilot Peer Support Initiative chairman Paul Reuter said.

“Last week, we were invited by the Portuguese CAA, who launched a day of workshops for their airlines to present peer support and encourage them to get ahead of the curve. I think today the message from the [UK] CAA was basically the same. So for me at least, what I have seen the last seven days is very encouraging,” he added. “I see that at least some CAAs in Europe are taking a very proactive stance. They seem to treat this as not only a new EASA regulation, but they seem to genuinely want to put in the effort to make this worthwhile, which is something I did not necessarily expect six months ago.”

Under the new rules, pilots will also have undergo psychological screening at the start of their careers, but Bor said there some confusion over this requirement. “The psychological assessment of new pilots is still lagging, because there’s not enough clarity about it,” he said.

British Airline Pilots Association head of flight safety Rob Hunter said it is also unclear what purpose the psychological assessment will serve. “We don’t quite know what they’re about,” he said.

Hunter is in favor of pilot-support programs, which were recommended in the findings of the Germanwings accident report.

“I am pleasantly surprised that most people are going beyond compliance,” he said. “Everyone now is talking about well-being. How can we make this a healthier kind of job? How can we keep people in the job longer, without psychological problems interfering? So that’s something proactive as opposed to reactive, which is more the EASA regulatory response so far.”

However, Hunter questioned why drug and alcohol testing was included in the EASA requirements.

“Some of the recommendations that attached themselves to the energy of this accident have a very tenuous link,” he said. “The task force, rather than looking at what happened in accident, looked at similar things. In the case of Lubitz, there were no indications of drug and alcohol use, but there were recommendations on that.”

Victoria Moores, victoria.moores@informa.com