and David Koenig
NEW YORK: Every few months, a pilot somewhere in the world is stopped before a jet takes off because of suspicion of drunkenness. It makes headlines and gives nervous travelers another reason to avoid flying.
Despite their notoriety, such cases are extremely rare.
Each day, there are 90,000 flights around the world, carrying more than 8 million people. And the overwhelming majority of pilots in those cockpits are sober.
“Pilots take being fit to fly seriously and act accordingly,” says former US Airways pilot John M. Cox, now CEO of the consulting firm Safety Operating Systems. “Pilots know they are one of the most carefully monitored professions and therefore, are very conservative.”
There are occasional lapses. The latest incident occurred Saturday morning when two United Airlines pilots were pulled from their flight — and arrested — as they prepared to fly 141 passengers from Scotland to the United States.
But don’t think this will end the pilots’ careers.
United has removed both men from flying duties — for now.
Many pilots caught drinking on the job have later returned to the skies.
The United pilots, Paul Brady Grebenc, 35, and Carlos Roberto Licona, 45, were released on bail Monday. Grebenc, from Columbus, Miss., and Licona, from Humble, Texas, made no plea and are free until a later court hearing.
The Federal Aviation Administration has a process that allows recovering alcoholics back in the cockpit if they pass a medical evaluation and stay clean during monitoring for the next five years.
Since the union-backed program started in the 1970s, about 5,300 pilots — more than 100 a year — have gone through rehab and regained their licenses, according to a program official.
“Pilots aren’t any different than other people in the respect of having occasions they probably regret,” says airline analyst Robert Mann.
U.S. rules prohibit pilots from flying if they have a blood-alcohol content of .04 percent or higher. (The United Kingdom has a stricter limit of .02 percent.) By comparison, the legal threshold to drive a car in the U.S. is twice that level at 0.08 percent.
Pilots must also wait several hours after having a drink to fly. The FAA has a saying for this: “Eight hours from bottle to throttle.”
Last year, random alcohol tests were given to 12,480 U.S. pilots. Only 10 failed.
Fliers might take solace in knowing that the danger from drunk drivers is much greater. Each year, about 10,000 people are killed on American highways because of drunk drivers — almost a third of all driving fatalities — according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.