Flying the Unfriendly Skies: Pilots Arrested for Suspicion of Being Under the Influence
Flying, without a doubt, is the safest way to travel.
It’s true. Just consider the statistics:
The odds of a plane crash are one in every 1.2 million flights. That’s a stark contrast to driving, which is significantly more dangerous across the board. According to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are more than 5 million accidents on our roads each year. The National Transportation Safety Board, on the other hand, reported only 20 accidents with planes over the same time period.
But let’s get down to the real nitty-gritty: The National Safety Council calculated that the odds of dying in a motor vehicle to be 1 in 98 over a person’s entire lifetime. For air travel, the odds were 1 in 7,178.
Not even close.
Yes, planes do occasionally crash (there have been roughly 1,000 between 1950 and 2010). From pilot error to mechanical failure to weather incidents, the unthinkable can still happen. However, given the number of daily flights and the magnitude of airline passengers moving around the world, there’s a better chance that you’ll lose your luggage or get food poisoning than take your last ride.
But there is one thing that can increase the odds of a life-threatening outcome: pilot intoxication.
Imagine, if you will: you’re booked on a transatlantic flight from Glasgow to Toronto. You’ve taken your seat, stowed your carry-on luggage and made sure your tray table is in its upright position. The plane is taxiing down the runway, and you think, “is the pilot sober?”
This might be the first time you’ve considered this question – but the reality of pilot insobriety is more common than you think. And it just happened… again.
According to a recent story from the CBC, both the captain and co-pilot (that’s right, both!) were arrested for suspicion of alcohol use before manning a flight from Scotland to Ontario. The cabin crew alerted airline management before the 250 passengers boarded the plane, and a potential crisis was averted.
There’s no room for mistakes at 37,000 feet – and pilots can’t afford to have their judgement impaired in any way. To have both pilots intoxicated means that no one was available as a backup, putting every passenger at double the risk. Per FAA regulations, pilots aren’t allowed to consume any alcohol eight hours before a flight or have a blood alcohol level (BAC) higher than .04 percent. While airlines have been increasingly proactive in testing the BAC of their personnel – from mechanics to pilots – it’s clear that these systems continue to be circumvented.
According to a study by the PMC of Lexis-Nexis newspapers articles, the number of alcohol violations by airline pilots in the U.S. have significantly increased since 2001, and continues to occur with a disturbing frequency. From 2010 to 2015, 64 pilots were cited for violating the FAA alcohol and drug guidelines – and in 2015 alone, over 1,500 airline personnel (including 38 pilots) tested positive for illegal narcotics.
In a FoxNews interview, Peter Bartos, a retired military pilot, made this observation:
“It is mind-boggling that on average, one U.S. pilot a month is caught trying to fly a passenger aircraft while over the legal limit for flying, which at 0.04 percent, is more restrictive than for driving a car in many states, especially given that they know they are subject to screening. It also means that others aren’t caught, since it is not a mandatory test for all pilots on every flight.”
Pilots are responsible for the greatest asset of all: life. This responsibility can weigh heavily on these skilled and highly-trained individuals, and alcohol may be a common remedy for pressure and stress-related disorders. But there’s no excuse for being “cocked” in the cockpit – especially when so much is on the line.
While the U.S continues to have one of the most stringent and regulated systems for airline pilot safety, alcohol continues to plague our pilots – putting lives at stake, and making our skies a little less safe. We must do better, and recent advances in breathalyzer technology and monitoring practices can help lead the way.