The drinking pilot scenarios

Last month Chip Wright posed a hypothetical situation involving a possibly intoxicated airline pilot and solicited your comments on how you would handle the situation. Here’s his response to your answers.–Ed.

There are two ways to approach answers to this question: the new-to-the-airlines pilot, and the regional pilot interviewing for the majors. Further, there are two very broad ways to actually answer the question: Throw the offender to the wolves and let him or her deal with the consequences, or help the offender gracefully bow out.

I checked the responses on both the blog and on Flight Training’s Facebook page. A couple of readers answered as though the scenario was designed with the eight-hour rule in mind. I had intended it to be under a typical airline’s 12-hour rule, and Steve’s response on Facebook was that as long as the eight-hour rule was observed, then no harm, no foul, and that it depended on how strong the drinks are and how well the pilot holds his liquor. That answer, I can assure you, will get you a one-way ticket home.

Every airline has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to having alcohol in your system when you report for work. The FAA has always backed up the zero-tolerance policy when airlines implement it. Zero means just that: When you take a Breathalyzer or blood test, you need to be totally clear of alcohol.

EJ, Dave, Corey, and Mark work toward the answer of addressing the captain and giving him the option to call in sick. This is a common answer, and it is not necessarily wrong. But the logical follow-up to you, the applicant, is this: Will that stop this from happening again? And what if the next FO isn’t so willing to stand up to a pilot who may be tipsy, or even belligerent?

What I really like are the answers in which folks asked for more information. In an interview, you may or may not get more information. But asking is good, as you don’t want to jump to conclusions. One question that was missed is an obvious one, and will allow you to possibly choose how you answer: Does this pilot have a known drinking problem that might be full-blown alcoholism? Again, the interviewer may not tell you, but I will address this angle later.

Taking a photo of the pilot drinking, as Mark suggested, isn’t a bad idea. The company can also ask for copies of the pilot’s receipt if he paid with a credit or debit card (after an accident, so will every government agency), and they will ask the hotel to use the pilot’s key to determine when he went to his room. There are loads of potential legal and ethical problems with these two tracks, but the pilot may still be forced to answer some uncomfortable questions.

There is that reality–and several of you touched on this–that your ticket and your career are both on the line as well. The cold, hard truth is that as soon as that pilot made the decision to either drink inside the allowable 12-hour rule, and/or decided to put on his uniform and step into the hallway while sick, he or she has made a decision to sacrifice both of you. The effect on you is of no concern to this individual. Your career’s gone? Because of me? Sorry, dude. Let me buy you a drink while we commiserate!

Does that person deserve you helping him or her avoid trouble?

There are two choices here. Choice A is to get the pilot to make a phone call, and this is where the issue of interviewing as a new airline pilot versus one as a regional pilot going to a major matters. As a new-to-the-industry pilot, it is perfectly fair and acceptable that you might get the pilot to call in sick. Give the individual a chance to make the right decision. If he won’t, you will have to make a call to the chief pilot and explain the situation. They will then make the decision on how to handle it. A seasoned regional pilot, however, is aware of resources within the union that can help. Every union has a committee or group that specializes in dealing with unprofessional behavior, and in this case, they can contact the pilot and explain the severity of the situation. The company is still going to get involved, and the flight will in all probability cancel (assuming another person in the hotel is not available), but the pilot—if he cooperates, which is the key—will be offered the opportunity to seek medical help. It may cost him a year or more away from the job as he sobers up, but he will be given the opportunity to redeem himself. Called the HIMS program, it has been wildly successful in getting sick pilots back to work. It has saved careers, and more importantly, it has saved lives.

Choice B is more harsh, and personally, it’s the one that I tend to lean toward. As I said, the pilot has already made the decision to risk life and limb and your own future as well as his. You could go ahead and skip the niceties and call the chief and, in no uncertain terms, explain you have a co-worker who needs a Breathalyzer test. Don’t offer an analysis of how drunk or sober you may think the person is. Just request the test. The rest will take care of itself. I come to this from personal experience: A family friend was killed in a rather grotesque fashion in a car accident involving a drunk driver. The effect it had on my parents is something I have never forgotten.

What you cannot allow to happen is for the pilot to leave the hotel for the airport. If that means you stay behind, so be it. Going to the airport opens up all kinds of questions about your intent to prevent him from getting in the cockpit. Just recall the America West crew in Miami that was actually taxiing the airplane when they were called back to the gate. A few minutes later, and they would have been airborne. Just letting that individual go the airport could get you fired if he is found to be drunk. At the very least, your judgment will be severely questioned.

It’s a tough situation, and if you don’t personally deal with it, you will eventually know or hear of someone who has. It’s also an interview question that you should count on in some form. The scenario here is just one possibility. It may be posed such that you first meet the pilot at the airplane within minutes of departure time.

Things aren’t always black and white; sometimes there is a gray area. The important thing in a case like this is to develop a reasonable answer and stick to your guns. Be able to defend it, and be able to sleep at night. Do that, and you will indeed live to fly another day.–Chip Wright

Tags: , , , , , , ,

5 Responses to “The drinking pilot scenarios”

  1. DMH says:

    I find this whole blog quite amazing given the pass that AOPA has given Randy Babbitt for drinking and driving. How can an organization such as AOPA support Mr. Babbitt when it espouses the regulations that rightfully demand a zero tolerance towards drinking and flying. I realize Mr. Babbit was found not guilty by legal standards but that does not negate that he was driving with a 0.07 blood alcohol level. Thankfully he was not flying. AOPA should hold Mr. Babbitt accountable for his actions before promoting him in his new career.

  2. Jonjacob says:

    I too was graded a heavy drinker by us gov, getting a T-totaller now, more or less,that is, by enhancing the word ‘heavy’. Thus I drink red, white, rosé,
    and do treath it if it were Johnny Walker, Ströhrum even.

    ciao, *)_.

  3. You are right, even if he calls in sick this will continue to happen over and over again. And if we make it as easy as calling in sick isn’t that making it even easier to continue this cycle? Many professionals are not able to drink and show up to work…I think sometimes its the stress that causes more pilots to try and relax. they need to check into how much down time the pilots have and perhaps that needs a bit of a tweak.

  4. Leon Grickis, Jr. says:

    Another topic well covered! Having come from a 20+ year career as a truck driver where the ‘bottle to throttle’ laws are VERY stringent, I would opt for scenario #2 as well. Don’t let the party in question leave your sight even for a minute! There is NO place in ANY facet of the transportation industry for alcohol or other judgement impairing substances…none whatsoever!

  5. Avi says:

    Great article. As a pilot in training who also does the marketing for a company that helps people struggling with addictions to get into rehab treatment facilities, I can personally attest that its better to fly when theres no alcohol at all in the system, regardless of what the legal limits are. We have assisted other pilots who thank god decided to get help into a rehab program before they got themselves into a really bad situation.

Leave a Reply

*