Sunday, April 03, 2016

Another Drunk Pilot?

Pilots are routinely tested for drugs and alcohol
All airline pilots are randomly tested for both drugs and alcohol.

Last week another pilot was pulled out of his cockpit and arrested for being under the influence. So what's up with these guys? It seems like you can hardly turn on the news without hearing about another drunk pilot, right? They're even making movies about them. Why is this even a thing?

Well it's easy to explain why the furor over alcohol abuse by pilots is a "thing". And by that I mean something which garners immediate headlines and watercooler talk. This is because short of nuclear power station operators or cruise ship captains, few other professions leave so many lives in the direct immediate control of another human as does aviation. And for all the oft-stated reasons that riding in an aluminum tube at 30,000 ft is already nerve wracking enough, the thought of having a tipsy pilot up front is something that no one needs or wants. And that is completely reasonable.

If your lawyer is sloshed on the job, maybe it'll cost you some money if you lose a suit. And perhaps after a few martinis your doctor might prescribe a Tylenol when what you needed was an Advil. Even if a hammered surgeon nicks an artery and the patient bleeds out on the table, it's just one person. But a pilot can kill hundreds, which is especially bad if you happen to be one of the ones riding along.

As an aside, I admit to being amused by passengers who will say something like: "Well, you know, pilots really only fly the plane for an average of 30 seconds during any given flight. It's the computers which really fly the plane." And then quickly follow it with "Did you hear about that drunk pilot? He could've killed everybody!"

Alcohol Abuse Among Pilots is Actually Rare

So is there actually an alcohol abuse problem among pilots or is this something which just tends to make the headlines? In actuality, airline pilots are nowhere near the top of the list of professions with high degrees of alcoholism. Ironically, doctors and lawyers are high up on the list. But a study conducted by NIH found a total of 13 alcohol related incidents involving airline pilots over a 16 year period between 1990 and 2006 which would indicate that this "problem" is actually quite rare.

Additionally, there has never been an aviation accident attributed to substance abuse by airline pilots. Government data suggest that about 12 pilots annually are found in violation of FAA standards for blood alcohol content out of over 11,000 tested. But overall, the incidence of alcoholism among airline pilots is below that of the general population.

Where There are Humans, There are Human Frailties

Because the "Drunk Airline Pilot" headline makes such excellent clickbait and draws so many eyeballs (see the title I chose), there's little incentive to tone down the story to something like "Airline Pilot Only Half as Drunk as You Driving Home". That's because the legal limit imposed by the FAA is a BAC of .04% whereas a DUI in most states is defined as a BAC of .08%. Furthermore, a test result of .02 to .04% will result in a pilot being removed from duty though it doesn't carry a criminal penalty.

Now this guy may have really tied one on and was actually blotto, I don't know. But most of the cases I'm familiar with resulted from one too many drinks the night before followed by too short of an overnight for the alcohol to wear off. If this was the case, our hero was probably not ripped but rather just across the line of .04%. Obviously he was displaying some signs of inebriation or perhaps odor as he was identified at the security checkpoint.

Please don't get me wrong. I am not defending this guy's actions. He screwed up big time and betrayed the trust placed in him. He will also pay an extremely heavy price. My point is that this guy was most likely not as stumble drunk as the headlines usually suggest, but he certainly was impaired.

So What Happens to Him Now?

To use a technical term, this guy is royally screwed...and he has nobody to blame but himself. The use of alcohol by airline pilots is governed by federal aviation regulation (FAR) 91.17 and stipulates:

(b) Committing an act prohibited by §91.17(a) or §91.19(a) of this chapter
is grounds for: 
(1) Denial of an application for a certificate, rating, or authorization
issued under this part for a period of up to 1 year after the date of that
act; or 
(2) Suspension or revocation of any certificate, rating, or authorization
issued under this part.

The mechanism that the FAA uses to get problem pilots out of the cockpit is through the denial of a medical certificate, which is needed to fly. Furthermore, the FAA defines a history of alcohol abuse as a disqualifying medical condition. Using a bit of circular logic, being cited for attempting to operate an aircraft while having a BAC in excess of the limit can be considered as evidence of a history alcohol abuse and therefore disqualifying for holding a medical certificate.

Getting past all the legalese, this means the guy is quite possibly grounded for good. But that's just the Feds. Most airlines have very severe sanctions for alcohol use by employees in safety sensitive functions which includes pilots. If this guy tested at more than .04% BAC, he will most likely be canned. And that likely means termination with prejudice as it is unlikely that he'll find another flying job.

There is a pathway back to the cockpit, but it is long and expensive often taking years to regain ratings and certifications from scratch. In the meantime he'll be busy selling his house, finding new schools for his kids and explaining to friends and family why he's no longer an airline pilot.

But I Thought Alcoholism was a Disease

Alcohol abuse has always carried the stigma of being a moral failing but that perception has faded over the years. The American Psychiatric Association describes the conditions which define both alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM). The recently published DSM-5 is moving away from treating both abuse and dependency as separate conditions though the criteria used by the FAA in defining alcohol abuse is significantly different than that described in the DSM.

It is generally recognized though, that a problem with alcohol should not be faced alone. To that end, the Human Intervention and Motivation Study (HIMS), a program funded by the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) has resulted in resources being made available for pilots who have alcohol problems. The idea here is that a program which concentrates on the rehabilitation and return of pilots to the cockpit would encourage others to come forward for treatment.

The caveat of this program is that it does not protect pilots who operate or attempt to operate an aircraft under the influence from sanction. So what should this guy have done? How could he have avoided all this bother?

Well, short of not drinking so much the previous evening, he should have called in sick and not gotten on the aircraft. In fact any time up until a predetermined point a pilot can refuse to operate the aircraft and not be in violation. At my airline that point is the threshold of the aircraft door though it may be different for other carriers. That is the point of no return when determining intent.

Are You Drunk?

One of the more enervating aspects of being an airline pilot most likely not enjoyed by other professionals is having complete strangers come up to you and ask if you're drunk. This just happened a few weeks ago to me as I was in the gate area waiting to board a deadhead flight. The guy came up and asked, "Hey, you look sober. Are you our pilot?" I told him I was not (his pilot) but must confess to being a bit annoyed. 

He should ask his doctor that question on his next visit. The odds are statistically higher that the answer is yes.

But I get it. People getting on an airplane are nervous and see a guy in uniform so they open their mouth and something stupid comes out. One reply which I always long to make (but never would) is "not as far as you know."

So rest assured, nervous flyer, your pilot is not drunk. But you might want to ask yourself who would you honestly rather have flying your plane given the choice: The alcohol and drug abusing pilot played by Denzel Washington in Flight who saved everyone's life, or the stone cold sober Asiana pilots who crashed their 777 into a seawall in San Francisco on a clear day? Take your time answering. I'll wait.


  1. I really enjoy your blog! Found it by coincidence and now I'm another fan in your list :) So just one question, do you ever get the chance to go out for a night and enjoy some drinks? How much time do you need between a night out and your next flight?

  2. Hi Margarita,

    Thanks for the kind words! The regulations state that no alcohol can be consumed in the eight hours prior to flight (bottle to throttle). Realistically, though, I think 12 hours is a good limit to observe and then having had only one drink will keep most people safe.

    Take Care!

    Capt Rob


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Capt Rob