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Home > Profession > Alcohol and Flying: Should all pilots be checked before flight?
Alcohol and Flying: Should all pilots be checked before flight?
Flying - Profession
Tuesday, 03 October 2006 07:35

Hello Captain Lim,

Is it mandatory for pilots to go through a medical check before they fly an airplane?

There was a case recently, here in the US, where both pilots of a domestic carrier were on alcohol. The pilot's blood-alcohol level was 0.091%, and the co-pilot's was 0.084%. The airline is said to have a stringent "bottle to throttle" rule, but how is it implemented? The pilots were about to fly 117 passengers when they were "accidentally caught".

Don't you think all pilots should be subjected to medical tests before they fly? Shouldn't it be made sure that the pilot has had enough sleep and absolutely NO alcohol before he can fly?

Thanks,

Amit

Hi Amit,

Pilots must undergo a thorough medical examination annually if they are below 40 years, and once every 6 months if they are above that age. Besides this mandatory aircrew medical examination, there is no requirement for them to be checked medically (you mean to undergo a breathalyzer test?) prior to every flight. To your suggestion, it is like asking: Shouldn*t all surgeons undergo a breathalyzer test prior to entering the operating theater?

Yes, I know you are concerned that some pilots are attempting to fly while having a blood alcohol level well above the permissible limit. In fact, most airlines have zero tolerance policy on drinks and drugs. It is no longer the 8 hours "bottle-to-throttle" rule. British Airways stipulates that pilots can only drink in moderation within 24 hours of reporting for duty, and not at all, within 8 hours of duty!

How are pilots caught if they have been drinking excessively the night before? Two ways: Random tests of pilots by enforcement officers, or if their behavior arouses suspicion among airline officials, e.g. immigration officers or security screeners. So far, most of the pilots caught for attempting to fly intoxicated were those that were tipped off by security screeners. Although screeners are not trained to look for impaired pilots, they do perform an excellent job without raising any suspicion in detecting drunken behavior, especially when they can smell alcohol on the breath of crew whilst doing the frisking.

What then is the legal limit for "bottle-to-throttle" rule? Federal regulations prohibit pilots from operating an aircraft within eight hours of consuming alcohol or if they have an alcohol concentration of at least 0.04 %. So the FAA's rules are, naturally, much stricter. Pilots are not allowed to have had a drop for eight hours, or have an alcohol blood count of 0.04% or higher as compared to the Florida law which would prohibit you to drive a car past 0.08%!

What are the possible consequences? In December 2003, a Virgin Atlantic 747 captain, who earned an estimated salary of 100,000 pounds a year, was being charged for being drunk. He was about to fly nearly 400 mainly British passengers from Washington to London when airport police stormed the plane and escorted him off the flight. He was suspended from flying and some pilots could face some period of imprisonment if convicted.

FAA policy today is that, pilots who fail the sobriety tests would immediately have both their medical and airman's certificates revoked. Pilots must wait a year and go through rehabilitation to get their medical certificates restored. To get their airman*s certificate, they must also wait a year and then retake all the written and flight tests required to fly a plane again.

Yes, an increasing number of pilots are getting caught while drunk on duty. This doesn't necessarily mean that there are more intoxicated pilots flying around, but that more are getting caught! So today, pilots are more aware of the consequences of drunken flying. Having a good sleep and absolutely no alcohol at least 24 hours before flight is certainly a pilot personal responsibility!

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