María Luz Novis, Aeronautical and Health Psychologist
Clinical Directora of PAPI peer support programme
April 12, 2021
Following the Germanwings accident that took place on March 24, 2015 with the death of all its occupants, a Working Group was formed from which a series of corrective and preventive measures emerged in order to avoid the recurrence of this type of intentional accidents as much as possible. These measures were embodied into the European Regulation (EU) 2018/1042, which includes measures such as the psychological evaluation of flight crews before joining an airline, pilot support programs and breath alcohol controls by the States.
These preventive measures will represent an important step forward in the promotion of health and operational safety, since they imply the acknowledgement of the importance of the psychological aspects of the crews in a job that demands so many resources from the pilot and involves a high degree of responsibility. At the same time, they raise doubts, both because of the novelty they represent, especially for smaller operators, and because of the cultural change involved in recognizing a type of pilot profile that is not based exclusively on technical flight criteria, but on those competencies and psychological aspects that promote the safe operation of the aircraft, the care of passengers and the crew member’s own health. This is coupled with a paradigm shift in airmanship or pilot professionalism in which asking for help is now seen as a strength rather than a weakness.
In order to make it easier for the Operator to understand the regulations regarding the obligation to perform a psychological evaluation at the beginning of the pilot’s career in an airline, the Spanish Aviation Safety Agency published on January 18th of this year the Guidelines for the performance of the psychological evaluation. In this Newsletter, we are going to try to clarify some terms of this Guideline mainly for people who are not familiar with psychological aspects, with the understanding that the author’s appreciations may not coincide exactly with the criteria followed by the authors of this Guideline and even less with the interpretation that other readers may give to it. In order to try to explain the contents of the Guide, I will try to answer the questions asked by some pilots.
Is this psychological evaluation considered sufficient reason to dismiss a crewmember?
Indeed it seems to be so, although this is not something completely new. Operators already conducting psychological evaluations in the past could exclude a crew member if he/she did not meet the profile for the position and the company’s criteria.
To what extent are the tests used by the psychologist to perform this psychological evaluation reliable and adapted to flight personnel?
Psychological tests must be driven by the criteria of reliability and validity ( measuring what they are intended to measure and measuring it well). In addition, any assessment or test that is used should be well calibrated and, as far as possible, should be a scale of the pilot population.
Should they communicate that the reason for a pilot not to join that company was the psychological assessment?
In my opinion, the pilot has the right to request information about this exclusion and as long as the Operations Management of the corresponding Operator authorizes it, I believe it should be given to him/her.
The AESA Guidelines mention ethical criteria, but who monitors that these ethical criteria are followed in a screening process?
The psychologist’s code of ethics1 is clear in this regard and includes a great deal more than what the AESA document itself indicates. (Some of these articles 6, 12, 15, 17, 19, 40, 41, 42, 43 are available on request).
When it is stated that “The conduct of the psychological assessment will be the responsibility of the operator, who must ensure that the flight crew has undergone a psychological assessment prior to their first flight with the company”, to what extent does this conflict with the medical requirements of a standard medical certificate?
AESA itself explains this in section 2.3.2. I agree that it does not have to conflict with the medical requirements for obtaining or renewing a medical certificate. These certificates follow a medical criterion and in any case the psychological evaluation is only mandatory for the initial certificate; for the license renewal, such psychological evaluation is not mandatory unless it is considered that the pilot might have some problem or pathology.
On the other hand, this is a clinical evaluation (the document also says so) that starts from a medical model oriented to look for a possible pathology, while the psychological assessment to join a company starts from a psychological model of health, that is, the candidate’s strengths are also looked for and the profile for the position is thoroughly analyzed.
Is it possible for a pilot to have his certificate in order and yet not pass the psychological evaluation of the company he is applying for?
Indeed, it can happen as we have been explaining. In the latter case, if he/she does not pass the assessment because the psychologist, based on objective and measurable evidence, considers that this person has a pathology or is simply going through a vital moment of suffering that makes him/her unfeasible for operational safety, the best thing for him/her and for the company in question is that he/she does not become part of its crews at that moment. The psychological assessment is made at a certain moment in the candidate’s history, which does not imply that it is definitive; human beings are flexible and adaptive and it could well happen that at some other time he/she will pass this assessment.
What exactly is the type of assessment referred to in point 2.4 of the guide for operators considered as non-complex?2
The guide states that, for these cases, the psychological assessment may be replaced with an internal assessment of the psychological attributes and suitability of the flight crew.
This definition of “internal assessment of psychological attributes” is a bit ambiguous in my opinion, although it could perhaps be understood as a lesser type of psychological assessment than the one required for complex operators
Is the level of training or experience of the psychologists who are to perform these psychological assessment procedures commensurate with the responsibility they represent and the principle of neutrality?
To ensure the suitability of the evaluating psychologist, the regulations require that this evaluation be carried out by an expert psychologist in psychological evaluation in the field of aviation and that the psychological assessment of personality traits be carried out by a health psychologist with experience in psychological evaluation.
The training and accreditation of the aeronautical psychologist who performs this type of evaluation exceeds what AESA itself requires: 200 hours of training or 3 years of experience within the industry. In order to obtain in practice the title of Expert Psychologist in Aeronautical Psychology granted by the Spanish Psychology Council, it is required to be able to demonstrate either three and a half years of experience within the sector or the successful completion of the Expert course of 600 hours, 400 of which are internships.
Is there a Registry of Psychologists who can perform these functions, either at national or European level, as is the case with AMEs?
The Psychology Council of Spain keeps this registry. According to my information, EFSA does not have this registry as of today.
2According to EASA: “The operator is non-complex if its workforce is less than 20 full time equivalents (FTEs). However, point AMC1 ORO.GEN.200 (b) paragraph (b) indicates that an operator with less than 20 FTEs may also be considered complex if, for example, it performs high-risk commercial SPO or operates in a challenging environment (offshore, mountainous area, etc.).