THIS PAST SATURDAY, IN CALGARY, Canada, officials pulled a pilot off his plane and arrested him. He had been passed out drunk in the cockpit. This came on the heels of another incident last week in Indonesia, where an airline had to fire a pilot who was also caught flying drunk. That pilot also made it to the cockpit. Passengers became alarmed at his slurred speech over the speaker system, and reported him to the authorities. Only then was he removed from the flight.
On its face, this is pretty terrifying: we like to think the people who are flying us are — at the bare minimum — extremely competent, let alone sober. And the fact that the pilots could get this far is a little frightening. So what exactly do airlines do to keep us safe from pilots that are pissed to the gills?
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a rule: 8 hours from bottle to throttle. Technically, pilots can’t legally drink within 8 hours of getting on a plane. The FAA also prohibits them from flying if they are still feeling the effects of a hangover (though this is harder to monitor).
The FAA enforces this by giving random drug and alcohol tests to pilots. The good news is that it’s pretty rare for a pilot to fail a test. In 2015, out of 12,480 pilots tested, only 10 failed.
There are also measures at the airport to prevent a pilot from taking off drunk. In Canada this weekend, the system worked: gate agents suspected the pilot had been drinking, and alerted the co-pilot. When the co-pilot checked on him, he was passed out in the cockpit.
The Indonesia instance is more alarming. A video was released showing the pilot, clearly stumbling around, going through security and not being stopped. In the US and Europe, this is something that security is supposed to be keeping an eye out for.
The system of stopping drunk pilots from flying mostly depends on the staff at the airport recognizing drunkenness and calling it out. That’s what happened in the Calgary case — it’s not what happened in Indonesia, and as a result, executives at the airline lost their jobs.
Does this happen often?
The short answer is no, but that it does happen. The legal limit for alcohol in the bloodstream while flying is lower than it is for driving, and pilots are drunk way less frequently than drivers are, but really any amount of drunk flying is too much.
As a passenger, the best thing for you to do is just keep an eye on your pilots. It’s something everyone has to participate in policing. It was alert passengers that saved the flight in Indonesia, it was alert employees in Calgary. Just keep an eye out. And maybe don’t buy your pilot a drink at the airport bar.