Pilots' alcohol limits debated
An airline pilot caught this week in Amsterdam for being over the legal alcohol limit just before takeoff highlights an issue among U.S. pilots that occurs once a month on average, government data show.
The case of the unidentified Delta Air Lines captain renews a long-standing debate about whether the federal blood-alcohol limit for pilots — .04% — is adequate to protect safety. In most states, the legal limit for driving is .08%.
About 12 commercial pilots are found to violate the FAA standard each year, according to agency data. That's a small fraction of the more than 11,000 who are tested yearly.
The pilot in Amsterdam had a blood-alcohol content of .023% when he was measured in the middle of the day, according to Dutch authorities. That means the case would not be considered a violation under U.S. law, although he would have been prohibited from flying until tests showed he was below .02%, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Elaine Weinstein, former head of safety recommendations at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said she has been convinced by years of accident data that there should be a zero tolerance for alcohol and drug use by pilots and others who transport people for hire.
"If a pilot is drinking before he flies, it raises the question in my mind about whether this person has a substance abuse problem," Weinstein said.
Jim Hall, former chairman of the NTSB, agrees. "It's always been important, but now with the technology and the alertness required in the modern cockpit, we cannot tolerate any level of intoxication," he said.
Prompted by several high-profile cases of airline pilots flying while drunk, the FAA has become far more rigid in recent decades.
The most notorious case was in 1990, when all three members of a Northwest Airlines crew tested positive for alcohol after completing a flight to Minneapolis. The captain had a blood-alcohol level of more than .10%.
"Although the data does not suggest that alcohol abuse by pilots is a serious safety issue, we continue to remain vigilant" to ensure that it never does, FAA spokesman Les Dorr said.
Airline accidents related to alcohol in this country are extremely rare. The last major accident involving alcohol was in 1977 when a Japan Air Lines cargo DC-8 crashed shortly after takeoff at Anchorage. The NTSB found that the pilot's alcohol level far exceeded the legal limit for driving.
Former airline pilot John Cox, who was a safety officer at his carrier's union, said he believes risks of a drunk pilot causing a crash are minimal. Not only does the FAA conduct numerous unannounced tests, but the other pilot and flight attendants on each flight serve as another layer of protection against allowing a drunk pilot to get behind the controls. Airlines and pilot unions also have very aggressive programs to treat pilots with alcohol problems, Cox said.
Still, cases such as the one in Amsterdam do occur. In November, a United Airlines pilot was pulled off a flight in London after another crewmember smelled alcohol.
Delta issued a statement saying that Flight 35 from Amsterdam to Newark was canceled because the pilot "appeared to be unfit for duty."
"The crewmember has been suspended pending the outcome of our investigation," said a statement by the airline. Delta prohibits its pilots from having any alcohol in their systems when they report for duty.
Source : http://www.usatoday.com/travel/flights/2010-09-16-drunkpilots16rw_ST_N.htm
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