Oh, wait a minute, I think that’s supposed to be within 12 hours before the flight. Sadly, the morning news tells me that another airline pilot has been removed from a flight due to suspected intoxication. We all know how hard it is to find a flying job, especially with an airline, and it’s a tragedy to see a career come to an end in this manner. Please don’t think I’m condemning this individual because of something the news media reports. My previous blog titled, “Ground school for the news media,” sums up my opinion of their credibility on aviation matters. However, since the situation continues to occur more often than it should (Like…never), it’s a topic for discussion.
The FAA rule is simple; eight hours from bottle to throttle. Most airlines have more stringent rules and extend the time to at least 12 hours. If a pilot is tested and has an alcohol level of 0.02, he is removed from the flight and subject to losing his job. A level of 0.04 is cause for the FAA to revoke a license. In addition to that, most airlines also have a snitch rule. If a crewmember (including flight attendants) suspects that another crewmember is impaired and does not report it, they also are subject to termination. Of course random testing for drugs and alcohol are always in effect. Every pilot and flight attendant is occasionally met by the pee police when they report for duty or at the end of a flight and escorted to the restroom to spend some time with the little cup. I recently read a funny book (How to do a Stew, by Lee Heath) in which a flight attendant binged on water for three hours in order to meet the minimum requirement. Probably not so funny at the time, but I’m laughing anyway.
Approximately 11,000 random tests are conducted every year and the NTSB statistics show that a pilot is removed from a flight about once a month, either because of a random test or being reported. Losing a flying job and your license is bad enough, but if you actually fly the airplane while impaired, you are also committing a crime and can be sent to prison. All three pilots of a Boeing 727 crew met that fate in 1990. I think hotel lounges in layover cities suffered a financial hit for a long time after that.
Having said all that, airline accidents due to an impaired pilot are very rare. The last reported, that I know of, was in 1977 when a Japan Airlines Cargo DC-8 crashed on takeoff in Alaska. The captain far exceeded the limit. I’m happy to say that my personal experience with this subject has only been with the little cup in the restroom stall. I have flown with crewmembers who were admitted alcoholics, but they were aware of their problem and disciplined themselves accordingly while on duty. In fact, some of the best pilots I have ever flown with fell into that category. Not just good pilots, but enjoyable crewmembers as well. Fortunately, most airlines have a program for employees who are willing to admit they have an addiction and it seems to work very well.
As in all things aeronautical, judgment and discipline are essential factors and when those elements are abundant, many obstacles can be overcome. Flying high is a wonderful experience when measured by an altimeter. Not so much when measured by urine in a cup.