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Drunk Airman
FAA tightens screws on pilot drinking
Dozens came to work intoxicated in past 18 months

Arkansas takes lead on drunk airman law
June 17, 2003

By Sylvia Adcock, Tribune newspapers
Published June 17, 2003

Dozens of pilots have shown up to fly commercial airliners legally intoxicated in the past year and a half, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to toughen its stance toward pilots who drink and fly.

The crackdown comes as new figures show that last year, the number of pilots who failed the FAA's Breathalyzer tests before flying doubled from the previous year. Since January 2002, 35 pilots have failed alcohol tests at the airport, a number that includes a handful of high-profile cases in which federal security screeners noticed alcohol on a pilot's breath and called authorities.

On April 22, an American Eagle pilot was strapped into the cockpit preparing to take off from Grand Rapids, Mich., at 5:45 a.m. with enough alcohol in his system to make him too drunk to drive a car in every state, according to an airport police report. He registered 0.12 percent blood-alcohol content on the Breathalyzer after he was confronted by airport police and federal screeners. The pilot told police he had had only one beer at noon the day before. But when police searched his room at the Hilton Hotel, they found an empty bottle of whiskey.

In response to the new incidents, the FAA has begun to summarily revoke the airman's certificate of every pilot caught showing up for work with more than 0.04 percent blood-alcohol content--the federal government's legal standard for pilots. In the past, the agency revoked airman's certificates--one of two licenses every pilot must have to fly--only in the most serious cases.

Some pilots groups are concerned that the new tactic could force alcoholic pilots into the closet after years of policies that encouraged them to get help.

The FAA gives random Breathalyzer tests to about 10,000 pilots every year, out of 75,000 airline pilots nationwide. In addition, some pilots are tested each year when airport workers or other airline employees suspect they have been drinking. Less than 1 percent of the total number of pilots fail the tests, but the number is high enough to concern some experts.

"I think it suggests that there's a new crew of pilots coming in, and some of the longer-term pilots are getting to like alcohol too much. It's time to re-educate the whole crew," said Dr. Stanley Mohler, director of aerospace medicine for Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

For the hundreds of airline pilots who are alcoholics, the lifestyle of their chosen profession can make their struggle with addiction even more difficult.

"It is an issue. The culture does exist. You are away from home, it's available, and to some extent, encouraged--`OK, let's wind down now,"' said Donald Hudson, the aeromedical director for the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots union.

The number of pilots who failed the random tests has remained relatively constant since 2000. But last year, 17 pilots tested positive after being turned in by co-workers or other airport workers, in addition to the five random positives. (Four more pilots were turned in by security workers but not counted in the FAA's numbers because they failed tests given by police, not the FAA.)

So far this year, five pilots have failed the random tests and four have been turned in.

John Mazor, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, said that because the random numbers were staying the same, he did not believe the underlying problem was growing.

"We've got a one-year blip here," he said, adding that the heightened awareness after three highly publicized incidents last summer may have led more airport workers to be on the lookout for pilots who have been drinking.

He said that other issues, including pilot fatigue, pose more of a risk to travelers. And he noted that there have been no U.S. passenger airline accidents blamed on alcohol use by pilots.

Dr. Jon Jordan, the federal air surgeon who is the FAA's top official on medical issues, last fall called it "disturbing" that "security personnel seem to have become the first line of defense in identifying these problem pilots."

In January, the FAA sent out a memo to inspectors detailing a new procedure for handling cases when pilots test positive for alcohol, directing them to begin revoking the pilots' airman's certificates. That tactic previously had been used only in particularly egregious cases.

"What the FAA has done is tightened the screws on the regulations," said Dr. Warren Silberman, manager of the FAA's aeromedical certification division in Oklahoma City. "We legally revoke every airman's certificate they hold. They have to go back and retest everything before they can fly again."

Every pilot has two licenses, or certificates, and both must be valid in order for the pilot to fly.

The FAA's standard of 0.04 percent blood-alcohol content is generally considered to be the effect of one or two drinks. But studies show a deterioration of flying ability at a level as low as 0.02 percent. If a pilot registers from 0.02 to 0.39, no legal action is taken, but the pilot is not allowed to fly under FAA rules.

In most states, the legal standard for drinking and driving is 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content.

"When you're in a car, you have four wheels pressed against the ground," Mohler said. "If you go too slow in a car, you'll stop. If you go too slow in a plane, it will fall out of the sky."
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