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Sobering Facts On Airline Pilots

(August 8, 2002)

Recent cases of intoxicated pilots for America West and Atlantic Southeast Airlines (Delta Commuter) have some passengers wondering about those in the cockpit. While the concern is understandable, passengers should think twice before asking pilots about their sobriety.

Safety is no joking matter

According to media reports, several pilots who have had their sobriety questioned by passengers have reacted boldly by removing passengers from the flight or by delaying the flight to take a blood alcohol test.

As a former flight attendant, I've witnessed the full wrath of a pilot unjustly accused of drinking by a passenger. In 1991, I was working a flight in the wake of a similar sobriety incident at Northwest. During boarding, a young man poked his head in the cockpit and jokingly asked if our pilots were "drunk." Our captain became furious and jumped out of the cockpit, telling the man to meet him out on the jetway. The captain gave the passenger a good tongue-lashing regarding the recklessness of his joke. He then offered to delay the flight to take a drug and alcohol test. Eventually, the passenger apologized and was allowed to reboard without delaying the flight.

The rules and drug testing

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations prohibit pilots and flight attendants from flying within eight hours of ingesting alcohol. However, most airlines have set more restrictive limits. Airline officials I contacted for this story remain mum on exact timeframe. However, most U.S. carriers have set a limit of 12 hours, a few 24 hours, and some have imposed "dry layovers," regardless of the length of time. On top of that, most airlines have a zero-tolerance policy, whereby any crewmember could be fired if determined to be intoxicated.

To combat drug and alcohol abuse, all U.S. carriers subject employees to drug testing during the hiring process and randomly while on duty.

FAA statistics:

  • Each year, 25 percent of aviation employees are expected to be randomly tested for drugs, 10 percent for alcohol testing.

  • For the past two years, FAA statistics show the positive drug testing rate is less than one percent, and the alcohol positive rate is less than 0.5 percent.
According to FAA documents, pre-employment testing has the largest number of positives, thus keeping substance abusers from getting into the aviation industry in the first place. In addition to the testing, airlines have tremendous peer identification programs, which assists employees in need. If an employee does have a dependence problem, they can be returned to duty after evaluation by a substance abuse professional, successful completion of a rehab program, and a negative result on a return-to-duty drug test.

Proactive airlines

There are few industries more prepared to deal with drug and alcohol use than airlines. In the case of pilots, few professions are as closely regulated, monitored, and watched. Pilots are subjected to yearly physicals, tests, and training that few professions must adhere to.

Related sites:

FAA Aviation Industry Antidrug and Alcohol Misuse Prevention Programs
FAA Office of Aerospace Medicine

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