- The Washington Times - Friday, August 30, 2002

MADISON, Wis. A 20-minute United Airlines flight from Madison to Chicago was delayed for nearly 80 minutes yesterday after a passenger sarcastically asked the pilot whether he needed to be tested for alcohol or drugs.
To one witness, the woman's remark uttered as she boarded the plane sounded more like a smart-aleck comment than a direct challenge. A flight attendant said the woman immediately explained she was only joking.
But the pilot said it was airline policy to call the incident in. Airline officials then decided to make all the passengers disembark so the pilot could undergo drug and alcohol testing.
"She turned to the cockpit and said, 'We don't have to have you guys breathalyzed or drug tested?'" James Harbison, the plane captain, told The Washington Times. "So because an accusation has been made that I have been drinking, if something happened we would be liable. Per policy, I am required to be tested."
Both Mr. Harbison, an Annapolis resident based at Washington Dulles International Airport, and the plane's first officer tested at 0.0 percent in a blood alcohol level test. The flight continued after a 79-minute delay.
Many passengers seemed to sympathize with the pilot's predicament.
"You can't fault the pilot. He was only doing his job," Steve Crider said.
But not everyone agreed. Some said they believe the incident was bound to happen after recent well-publicized dismissals of two pilots for pre-flight drunkenness.
"It's hard to believe that this is the first time something like that has been said to a pilot," said Jim Murphy, who was transferring in Chicago to fly on to Las Vegas. "If I ran my business like this airline did, I would be in trouble. This is why they're going out of business."
The woman who made the remarks was escorted from the flight by sheriff's deputies and denied permission to continue. An FAA spokeswoman said the woman was arrested on charges of public intoxication.
A spokesman for United Airlines said they did not have information about the flight and referred calls to Atlantic Coast Airlines, which they said operated that flight. Rick DeLisi, the spokesman from Atlantic Coast Airlines, said their policy is to treat all remarks with equal seriousness.
"It's really not unlike situations we've all heard of or known of where someone makes a joke about a weapon around an airport screening area," he said. "It's just always so important to remind people there's really no way to interpret when someone's making a wisecrack or a joke versus an accusation or a threat."
United Airlines' flight-tracking system on the Internet explained the delay was "due to airport conditions."
Tina Gassen, a Madison resident on her way to Southern California to perform in a hip-hop show, thought the whole incident was overblown.
"I think it's silly," she said. "It's taking it way too far. A passing comment would stop a flight? Where does the line stop?"
Stephen Dinan in Washington contributed to this report.

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