The government has tightened procedures to keep drunk airline pilots out of the cockpit after a doubling of commercial pilots failing Breathalyzer tests.
Newsday recently reported that last year, 22 commercial airline pilots tested positive for alcohol use too close to assigned flights, up from nine in 2001, and nine pilots have tested positive this year. That’s a small fraction of the approximately 75,000 U.S. airline pilots, but enough to cause the Federal Aviation Administration to establish new procedures for dealing with drunk pilots.
The jump in numbers led the FAA to change its policy in January so that pilots who fail sobriety tests immediately have both their medical and airman’s certificates revoked. Both certificates are required for a pilot to fly.
Previously, only the medical certificate was revoked in cases of drug or alcohol use, said John Mazor, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots union.
Pilots can get caught in two ways: as part of the Transportation Department’s random tests of 10,000 airline pilots every year, or if their behavior arouses suspicion among airline officials or law-enforcement officers.
Pilots must wait a year and go through rehabilitation to get their medical certificates restored. To recover airman’s certificates, they must also wait a year then retake all written and flight tests required to fly.
An increasing number of pilots caught drunk while on duty doesn’t necessarily mean more intoxicated pilots are trying to fly planes, experts say. It may mean more are getting caught.
“There is a higher level of public awareness,” said Greg Overman, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Union, which represents pilots at American Airlines.
“The number of false accusations has risen, and even when there’s a false accusation by a passenger or a security screener, it tends to make headlines.”
In February, a pilot removed from a Delta Air Lines flight at Norfolk International Airport was acquitted of operating a plane under the influence of alcohol.
Two America West pilots accused of trying to fly drunk on a Phoenix-bound flight from Miami last year are scheduled to be tried in Florida state court on July 7.
In all three cases, federal security screeners had said they smelled alcohol on the pilots.
Robert Johnson, spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, said airline passengers as well as screeners are more likely to report something unusual at an airport since the September 11 terror attacks.
Screeners are not trained to look for impaired pilots, Mr. Johnson said. “Their job is to search for and keep prohibited items off the aircraft.” If a screener observes drunken behavior, he or she is directed to report it to a supervisor, who has the authority to report it to law enforcement and local airline officials, he said.