Germany's New Horizon: Randomly Drug Testing Pilots

Posted: Dec 27 2015, 10:20am CST | by , in News | Latest Business News


Germany's New Horizon: Randomly Drug Testing Pilots
Credit: Getty Images
  • Will focus on mental health.
  • Critics argue bias against pilots.

Germany's aviation agency's hoping that few changes in the pilot testing program will prevent another Germanwings tragedy. However, the new proposal has some critics decrying the usefulness.

Pilots may face random drug and alcohol tests in a proposed German law. According to Deutsche Welle, Germanwings flight Airbus A320 helped push the new monitoring, even though the pilot was not on drugs or alcohol at the time.

Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz flew the plane into the French Alps on March 24 after locking out his co-pilot and crew. He suffered from clinical depression and would have been deemed unfit to fly had the company been aware. After the crash, parent company Lufthansa Airlines indicated introducing precautionary medical checks, not just drug and alcohol, after medical notes indicating a severe relapse were found in the pilot's home.

Germany Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt told newspaper Bild am Sonntag the new regulation would be dependent on the various employers, not the government body. "The control system in this form is already established in the US and Australia - Europe should follow suit.”

In the United States, any aviation employee who refuses a test may be terminated and may face credential revocation. The Department of Transportation upholds the Pilot Records Improvement Act of 1996 (PRIA) in an effort to “adequately investigate a pilot’s background before allowing that pilot to conduct commercial air carrier flight.”

Dobrindt is hoping the checks will changes will destigmatize mental illness and provide a safer environment for crew and customers. “Experts across the world are seeing the positive effects of strengthening health and safety in the aviation industry." This includes the implementation of safety regulations when Malaysia Airlines flight 370 went missing over the ocean and MH17 was shot down by rebels in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

One persistent theory about the Germanwings crash is the co-pilot was scared of losing his position due to depression. However, critics are concerned with the lack of resolution as medical issues are not dependent on drug screening. 

"From our point of view the planned random tests are completely wrong. They have nothing to do with the Germanwings  disaster and will put an entire professional group under general suspicion," Cockpit pilot union spokesman Markus Wahl told Bild.

The transportation minister agrees with Wahl, which is why the bill also focuses on the mental health of crew members as well. In fact, most depression pharmacuetical companies recommend avoiding drugs or alcohol due to potential adverse interaction, so the tenuous connection is not unfounded.

In 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration raised flags on Lubitz's mental health as German doctors assured the agency the pilot had been cleared of issues. According to The New York Times' documents obtained by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), “modified living conditions caused the onset of a depressive episode” that took several months to stabilize in 2009.

However, while in America, Lubitz obtained a student license valid for five years. Eventually, he was able to gain a private pilot license in Germany and later his commercial flight license. Throughout the time frame, he received help for his reactive depression.  Yet German privacy laws prevented the sharing of information that may have saved the lives of 150 people on the flight. 

The Germany aviation and transportation agency now aim to close loopholes while not violating personal and health privacy. The biggest question is will the new regulations prevent another tragedy? Or will it provide more incentive to hide any medical conditions that may limit employment opportunities?

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