Pilots and Alcohol

Pilots and Alcohol

September 1, 2016

AS YOU PROBABLY HEARD, two United Airlines pilots were arrested in Glasgow, Scotland, last week on suspicion of intoxication.

This is a tough one for me — maybe the most difficult of any subject to tackle. I have to acknowledge that yes, pilots have, more than once, been found guilty of flying under the influence. And when this happens, it’s a shameful black eye for the profession. The sound you heard was that of thousands of pilots everywhere groaning with embarrassment, if not anger. At the same time, it needs to be clear how unusual this is.

These rare and isolated incidents are not a symptom of some dangerous and unseen crisis. I understand and expect that passengers will worry about all sorts of things, rational and otherwise. But as a rule, whether or not your pilots are drunk should not be one of them. My personal observations are hardly a scientific sample, but I have been flying commercially since 1990 and I have never once been in a cockpit with a pilot I knew or suspected of being intoxicated.

This is not something pilots play fast and loose with. Why would they, with their careers, to say nothing of the lives of their passengers, hanging in the balance? Violators are subject to immediate, emergency revocation of their pilot certificates.

The FAA blood alcohol limit for airline pilots in the United States is .04 percent, and we are banned from consuming alcohol within eight hours of reporting for duty. Pilots must also comply with their employer’s in-house policies, which tend to be tougher. Above and beyond that, we’re subject to random, unannounced testing for drugs and alcohol. Overseas, the regulations are even tighter. In Britain, the legal limit is set at twenty milligrams of alcohol per one hundred milliliters of blood. That’s four times lower than the British limit for drunk driving and equates to about .02 percent blood alcohol level.

Not for nothing, though: Scottish regulations are more strict that those of the FAA. The legal limit is about .02 percent blood alcohol level. It’s not impossible for a pilot to be in full compliance with the time restrictions and not feel any of the typical signs of intoxication, yet still be in violation. The same can sometimes be said for our own .04. That’s not an excuse; I have no problem with a requirement that pilots abide by a higher, more conservative standard than others. If we need to be extremely careful, so be it, that’s part of our job. But it’s something to think about, and passengers should realize that “flying drunk” isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem.

It’s also true that more than one airline pilot has been pulled aside after a passenger, TSA guards, or other airport worker wrongly suspected the pilot was intoxicated. Typically in such cases, the papers and TV news hastily report the initial suspicion, but not the vindication.

Having said all that, it should go without saying that alcoholism exists in aviation just as it exists in every other profession. To their credit, air carriers and pilot unions like ALPA have been very successful with proactive programs that encourage pilots to seek treatment. This has helped keep the problem from being driven underground, where it’s more likely to be a public safety issue.

Not long ago I flew with a colleague who participated in the highly successful HIMS program — an intervention and treatment system put together several years ago by ALPA and the FAA. HIMS has treated more than 4,000 pilots and records a success rate of near 90 percent, with only 10-12 percent of participants suffering relapse.

I asked that colleague if, prior to going into HIMS, he’d ever knowingly flown under the influence. His answer was a firm and very believable no.

For more on this topic, see my earlier post about the movie “Flight.”


Note: portions of this post appeared previously in the online magazine Salon.

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12 Responses to “Pilots and Alcohol”
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  1. Parker West says:

    Three incidents are ingrained in my mind, indicative that the frequency of drunk pilots sttempting to fly an aircraft is very rare. My wife was flying with HP America West when two company pilots were arrested in Miami for clearly being drunk. The reports claimed that the PIC tried to taxi with the TUG still attached. For months crews were forced to hear idiotic comments and jokes coming from PAs regarding the Miami incident. “Did our pilots stumble in or were they sober?”, “You should carry a breathalyzer with you to check on your plots, You have to admit it’s a good idea”
    The first incident I was aware of involved two Northwest pilots who were found to have been drinking prior to flying. This spawned the “rip roaringly funny” response to being asked what a PA wanted to drink,”Oh just give me what the pilots are drinking. I believe there have been other incidents at NW before their merger.
    The example you mentioned was reported worldwide causing embarrassment to all US carriers. The personal risks to drinking anytime on a crew layover are so great that doing so implies that a pilot or pilots are poor risk managers which doesn’t give the flying public confidence. If they would drink when doing so is illegal costing you your job, how will the person handle the many risks that confront a pilot constantly.

  2. Preppy6917 says:

    I’m a recovering alcoholic myself. I’m very curious to learn what HIMS considers to be “successful” treatment. 90% is a staggeringly high rate.

  3. Jimmy Farris says:

    Well written. I’ve been flying ‘corporate’ (not airlines) for 42 years and have logged over 26K hours. I’ve never seen (nor have heard) of a fellow pilot showing up for work intoxicated. Passengers need not worry about this matter, in my opinion.

  4. UncleStu says:

    I’ve always been more worried about possible bad behavior by passengers than by any crew member.

    Sure enough, I’ve been right about it.

  5. Catherine says:

    Correction to my statement. The AWA pilots were not taxing when recalled.

  6. Catherine says:

    I am glad you addressed this topic as I was thinking of emailing you to do so. American West Airlines 556 pilots were already taxing when ordered back to the terminal. They drank most of the night before their shift. And eight or even 12 hours may not be enough if the drinking was heavy. And the effects of heavy drinking go beyond alcohol blood levels; dehydration, headache, etc.

    Why not have a simple breathalyser test for pilots and attendants when they check in for their shift conducted by independent airport security? I think the expense would be worth it as it would put everyone’s mind at ease. Even if the events are rare, they are only the ones where the pilots were actually caught or the media found out.

    Saving just one flight, one group of passengers, airline employees, an expensive aircraft and possibly people and property on the group would make it worth it?

  7. JOhn says:

    I think you meant to say “Why would they, with the lives of their passengers hanging in the balance?”

    Keep up the good work!

  8. Paul says:

    I guess it should read “four times *lower* than the British drink driving limit”, which is 80mg alcohol in 100ml blood so 0.08%, as you suggest.

  9. Patrick, are you saying the limit – about 0.02% for flying, “four times the British limit for drunk driving” means the drunk driving limit is 0.005%? Or is the flying limit “one fourth” the limit for driving? That would make the driving limit about the same as Massachusetts if I’m correct, at 0.08%…

    Apologize if this is just pedantic, but I’m more likely to drive over there than I am to fly.

  10. Dan Ullman says:

    The most important part of HIMS is that you can do the program without having your license being threatened or being blackballed or fired.

    • Parker West says:

      Whoa Nellie, I know that the America West pilots were fired, as well as being sentenced to jail. As far as the NW people the first two were fired, any others I don’t know. I believe there was some connection to DUIs pilots may have received coming and going to or from their their assignments by Minnesota police.
      The program sounds like a lifesaver, I don’t see how it could prevent a pilot from being fired with cause. Of course you can try and include anything in a union contract. In the case of drinking, public opinion is not going to favor the pilots affected.