The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) says it is concerned by claims being made by individuals who have limited access to the estimated 17 000 pilots operating in South Africa concluding that they might be unfit to fly mentally.
This follows a Sunday Times report that SA is facing an aviation time bomb after a medical examiner at South African Airways, Thabani Nkwanyana, told the newspaper that the lack of proper psychological assessment and regulations for aircrew meant that a disaster similar to the Germanwings suicide crash was not far off.
A 28-year-old co-pilot has been blamed for causing the plane crash that killed 150 people in southern France, after it was found that his had concealed an illness and sick notes for the day the tragedy took place.
“It is unfortunate and disappointing that certain individuals that are privy to less than a handful of cases can simply generalise and conclude that the entire countrys pilot community suffers from mental ailments,” said SACAA spokesperson Phindiwe Gwebu.
“It is also reckless to assert that there are no regulations or guiding tools to assist in identifying aviators and pilots that may suffer mental or physical illness that may render them incapable of discharging their duties.”
Nkwanyana said in the report that “there arent sufficient systems in place to monitor the possibility of a Germanwings type of accident happening”.
The SACAA however said South Africa’s aviation industry adheres to and is audited according to the international standards of the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation (ICAO), of which SA is a member since 1947.
Extensive testing to retain licenses
“The reality is that aviators, pilots in particular, undergo extensive medical checks in order to retain their licences. Therefore, any statements that suggest that South African regulations are inadequate in this regard are simply misleading,” said Gwebu.
According to the statement released by SACAA, an eight-year comparison study to assess what could be the common ailment leading to medical unfitness in aviation personnel showed neurological, cardiovascular and psychiatric factors as key conditions.
“It is critical to note that this study was not only among pilots but also included other categories such as cabin crew, air traffic controllers and recreational pilots. The SACAA has augmented regulations and introduced initiatives to deal with these ailments.”
Pilots are expected to undergo both physical and mental fitness tests on a regular basis and the period of the medical certificates validity depends on the type of class of medical certificate issued said Gwebu, with the age of the aviator and whether there are any other underlying and managed medical conditions also taken into consideration.
Checks can therefore be done on an annual basis, every six months, or even at shorter intervals, depending on the risk factors.
The SACAA was last audited in 2013 and according to the SACAA statement no issued in relation to how South Africa regulates aviation medical matters was raised by ICAO.
Gwebu also referred to the SACAA’s local medical screening tools, in the form of questionnaires contained in the Designated Aviation Medical Examiners Guides saying, “Of the 50 questions relating to physical, mental and behavioural conditions that licensed aviators have to clear in order to be certified as fit to perform duties, 15 questions are specifically related to mental conditions, such as depression, panic attacks and anxiety as well as alcohol and substance dependence or abuse.”
“This clearly indicates that comments suggesting that there are one or two questions pertaining to mental assessment are simply malicious.”
Enforcement action against non-compliant licence holders
In the Sunday Times Report, Nkwanyana said that in addition to a “flawed system”, pilots feared losing their jobs because of mental problems and therefor “did not disclose their issues”.
In response to this Gwebu said that while local Civil Aviation Regulations clearly relies on the honest disclosure of pilots, in cases where it has become apparent that the license holder had not disclosed medical conditions that could lead to incapacitation whilst performing duties, legal action has been taken, resulting in the cancellation of licences.
Gwebu slammed the report as an exaggeration, saying a fair number of cases referred to the Aeromedical Committee had ruled against aviators, but this has not stopped aviators from disclosing their illnesses, ” showing a level of maturity and accountability” by SA aviators.
While it did not rule out the possibility that an odd licence holder may deliberately withhold information from his or her respective employer or the SACAA, Gwebu said the body was comfortable with the checks and balances in place.
Gwebu acknowledged that aviation medicine was a specialised service with immense potential for profitability and said it would not be far-fetched to conclude that those with vested interest may be behind some of the malicious tales.
The SACAA had been approached with proposals to provide solutions on various medical issues, including psychological screening tools but proposals had been reject based on the fact that some were not supported by research or in line with international best practices.
The SACAA has a responsibility to ensure that any solutions introduced are not in conflict with applicable South African laws. Over-regulation is certainly not the answer to every concern, legitimate or otherwise.”
Reassessment of flight deck composition
A number of international airlines have since revised their policy when it comes to the number of pilots on the flight deck during flight since the fatal Germanwings incident.
As a precautionary measure, South African operators have been requested to submit to the SACAA their respective risk assessment measures and minimum number of crew on the flight deck procedures at all stages of flight and based on this, the SACAA will advise the local industry on the way forward.
Whilst the French Alps crash can be regarded as an isolated case, the SACAA said it was closely monitoring developments across the world in order to learn lessons and acquire principles that can be adopted to ensure heightened aviation safety and security. NEWS24