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Abusing Alcohol Stories:
Airlines Address Drinking and Flying

By Ned Wicker

The story in the USA Today didn’t surprise me. According to Alan Levin’s article, an average of 11 commercial pilots a year have tested positive for blood alcohol levels over the accepted .04 standard.

The graphic on USA Today’s web site showed the number of positive tests for blood alcohol levels over .04, the maximum allowed in the United States for flying an airplane. It breaks down as follows from 1997 to 2004-- 1997 (7); 1998 (5); 1999 (11); 2000 (10); 2001 (9); 2002 (22); 2003 (16); 2004 (7). In 2008, 13 pilots tested positive.

Hard to believe but little testing is done

Levin pointed out that the Federal Aviation Administration conducts approximately 100,000 random tests per year, so the numbers of pilots who get caught with excessive blood alcohol levels are miniscule, and he added that no airline crashes have been caused by drunken pilots.

The story came on the heels of the arrest of United Airlines Capt. Edwin Washington at London’s Heathrow Airport after the crew reportedly smelled alcohol on him. The standards are a bit tougher in the UK, as only .02 is tolerated. Levin pointed out that .02 means what the level would be after one beer.

The customers were re-booked on other flights. I remember the old Hudson and Landry comedy bit, Ajax Liquor Store, about the drunk who orders enough booze to float a sail boat. The punch line is his admission that he is the pilot. But obviously the airlines take a dim view of the humor.

Pilots often in the news

There has been a lot in the news about pilots these days, like the two Northwest Airlines pilots who overshot Minneapolis, or about mistakes that were made during a flight that ended in a crash, killing 50 people last February.

But the airlines are trying to take care of their pilots, as evidenced by the Human Intervention Motivation Study that treats about 125 pilots a year. Dana Archibald is the chairman of that project and a pilot. He admits that he drank heavily off duty, but adds “Did I go to work drunk? Not really.” Archibald told USA Today that pilots are under the close supervision of not only the FAA, but the unions and the airlines as well. He says they are subject to increased alcohol testing.

How many don't get caught?

The cynic in me thinks if 11 per year are caught, there has to be so many others that go undetected. I would prefer to think the industry is serious and takes serious preventative measures to ensure that pilots are fit.

One thing that strikes me about this particular story is that we have also heard a lot recently about the pressures that pilots are under, not pressures related to alcohol, but pressures to just make ends meet financially. It seems pilots are paid so little, yet expected to be the very best and always perfect in their decision making and professional performance.

Not your daddy's pilot!

I always had a stereotypical image of the airline pilot, looking sharp in his uniform, silver hair, tanned and handsome. But the reality is they don’t make a lot of money, and so airline pilots like so many other functions, become a commodity.

I am actually surprised there aren’t more incidents of pilots abusing alcohol stories. Airlines are in deep financial trouble, they are cutting expenses left and right, and if pilots are paid little more than hamburger cooks, how can airlines expect the highest professional standards?

A stressful job

Even with severe sanctions, airline pilots are not exempt from the pressures of life. The pilots who fly the little puddle jumper from Des Moines to Chicago are probably not getting rich and may have financial strain bearing down hard, as they scramble to pay the bills. With the strain of life comes the need to relieve stress. Alcohol is often the answer in American society.

I do not mean to suggest that poverty or financial limitation means that a person automatically slips into alcohol abuse or addiction. But it’s a factor. Regardless of how much money a person makes, if column A and column B don’t match favorably on the balance sheet, they are in financial trouble. That can lead to abusing alcohol stories. One person might feel the pinch because she bought too many houses, while the other can’t afford any house.

What's the real story?

It’s good the airlines and the FAA do the alcohol testing and trying to find pilots abusing alcohol stories. The numbers are fairly low and it’s good that alcohol hasn’t played a role in any airline calamity. But if the pressure on pilots to be high level professionals does not match the compensation for their services, I fear too many with turn to alcohol to numb the pain.

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