Flying While Intoxicated

A recent article reported that a pilot for a regional affiliate of American Airlines has been suspended as a result of allegedly being intoxicated just prior to taking the controls of a commercial aircraft. Authorities say the pilot had conducted preflight checks and was exiting the airplane when a TSA employee smelled alcohol when he passed by. The pilot was then given a breath test, which he reportedly failed.

The curious aspect of the case involves the regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) concerning the operation of commercial aircraft and the consumption, by pilots, of alcohol. Under Section 91.17 of the Code of Federal Regulations, it is unlawful for anyone to act, or attempt to act, as a crew member of a civilian aircraft, under the following circumstances:

  1. Within eight hours of drinking alcohol.
  2. While under the influence of alcohol.
  3. While under the influence of any drug that adversely affects one’s faculties contrary to safety; or
  4. Having a blood or breath alcohol concentration of 0.04 or higher.

It’s the last of the above items that catches the attention of many people. Most of us might guess, without having taken a look at the regulations, that the presence of any alcohol in the system of an airline pilot would trigger, at the very least, a requirement that he or she not fly in that condition. The issue is more than theoretical, since incidents of this type do occur periodically. And we’re not saying that the airlines themselves might not have more stringent requirements than the FAA. On the other hand, one would expect that the agency charged with airline safety would have a zero tolerance policy in this area.

Zero tolerance is applied in numerous situations that present far less danger to the public than flying commercial aircraft. New York, for example, has a zero tolerance policy (BAC of 0.02 or more) regarding underage drinking and driving. We also reported in our blog of May 16, 2012 about New York City’s zero tolerance marijuana policy. If anyone can conceive of a logical reason why the FAA does not have a zero tolerance policy regarding flying while intoxicated, we’d like to hear about it!

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