European Task Force Touches Hot-Button Drug, Alcohol-Testing Issue

Europe is on record as rejecting the kind of drug and alcohol tests required at U.S. MRO shops.

A European task force’s suggestion to consider drug and alcohol testing programs for safety-sensitive employees, such as aircraft mechanics, would likely face opposition from organizations that have strongly rejected similar efforts by the FAA for U.S.-approved repair stations.

Among the report’s six recommendations is random drug and alcohol testing for pilots. Tasked with exploring changes to airline employee oversight in the aftermath of March’s Germanwings disaster, the group did not recommend broader testing programs, but its report suggests that programs—once established—“might be considered” for “other safety-critical professionals.”

Such a move would line up with FAA regulations—and face an uphill climb all the way to the European Commission (EC). The FAA has required drug and alcohol programs for “safety-sensitive” employees since 1991. The mandate does not extend to foreign repair stations—those in other countries approved to work on U.S.-registered aircraft—due in part to the legal complications in creating a single rule consistent with varied national laws.

Some in the U.S., notably Congress and unions, balk at what they consider a double standard, arguing the different sets of rules are economically unfair and generally unsafe. Last year, the FAA queried industry on the ramifications of extending its rules to foreign shops. Congress mandated the move, ordering proposal of a rule that aligns with each country’s laws. Despite a more flexible approach than past efforts, Europe balked. The main counterarguments: There is no safety justification—FAA does not claim there is one—and the rules would be too cumbersome.

Industry was predictably strong in its opposition, and they were joined by an influential ally: the EC.

“We have found no data that would support the existence of a safety case, and this holds specifically true for the EU,” wrote Matthew Baldwin, director, Air Aviation and International Transport Policy of the EC Directorate General for Mobility and Transport, in comments to FAA last year.

Baldwin added that existing regulations—including state employment laws and European Aviation Safety Agency safety management systems—are sufficient. Anything targeting mechanics should be brought before the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) “with a view to examining the safety case and, where warranted, pursue a global solution through the establishment of international standards,” he said.

A data-driven safety case will be hard to make. An EC analysis of ICAO data found 152 accidents where drugs or alcohol played a role in 1970-2012; none involved mechanics. But if Europe wants a flexible set of rules for MRO providers, it will find allies on the other side of the Atlantic. 

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