Just a couple of days ago, my wife and I watched Flight, the Denzel Washington movie about a pilot who performs a heroic feat to save a planeload of passengers only to lose his career to his drug and alcohol addictions. Without getting into the issue of whether or not a crew could have pulled off the scene of upside-down flying to save the day, I’ll address the addiction issue. Specifically, is it possible that someone could get away with this problem for as long as Whip Whitaker did? And happens if they are caught?
Let me start with the premise of drug testing. Every employee of an airline that might have any contact with security situations is subject to drug testing as a new hire. It’s unavoidable. The FAA requires that companies thereafter randomly sample 25 percent of the qualifying employees on an annual basis, and it has to be done throughout the system. In other words, Delta cannot just target its Atlanta employees, and JetBlue cannot just target its JFK employees to save on travel expenses for the testers. The drugs that are tested are of the illegal street variety, as well as alcohol.
In a large company, it’s possible to go years without getting tested. When I was with Comair, I got tested once in my first 12 years, and that was for my new-hire screening. Then, one day, I pulled into the gate in Cincinnati at the end of a trip, and a young lady with a clipboard was waiting for us. Having seen this scene before, I knew one of us was getting a “wizz quiz.” As I shut down the airplane, she looked at me, smiled, and pointed at me. Fortunately, I was already set to “produce,” or as Forrest Gump would say, “I gotta pee!”
It’s important to understand that refusal is not an option. In fact, it’s viewed as an admission of guilt.
As the company shrank over the next several years, I was selected by the computer for two more tests (that I remember). Simply put, the fewer employees, the greater the chance you will be tagged for a test.
What the movie Flight doesn’t address is how Whitaker didn’t get tested or caught before the accident. Further, there is a scene in which he is shown sneaking vodka bottles and pouring them into his orange juice. On an airplane with first class passengers, this is easier to get away with because the flight attendants can just record the drinks as having been “comped” to a first class frequent flyer. In a single class operation such as we had at Comair, getting away with this would have been much harder. Not impossible, but harder.
The next question is, what if an employee knows he or she is about to get caught? I can’t speak for every company or all of the various employee groups, but generally speaking for pilots, there is a chance to come clean before the test. If you are on any prescription drugs that might cause an issue, disclosure is the best option. If you have used illicit drugs or alcohol, you should openly acknowledge that as well, and follow whatever union protocols are in place. You will still get in trouble—possibly severe—but you will also be more likely to have a chance to enter a rehabilitation program.
The Human Intervention Monitoring System (HIMS) program is a nationally recognized substance and alcohol abuse program that allows pilots with addictions to seek the help they need. I’ve known several pilots who successfully recovered from their drinking problems to return to the cockpit (a process than can take several years). I’ve also known of more than a few pilots at several airlines who showed up under the influence of something, denied it, and got caught. They were let go immediately, and their careers were over. And don’t forget, those drug tests follow you to any number of jobs you might want.
As a point of how much compassion a company can show toward its employees, we had a few pilots who were in rehab during the strike in 2001 (credit julien). While the company had discontinued insurance for the pilots, the ones in rehab were still covered. As one of our senior managers said at the time, “We’re talking about lives here.” The rest of us understood.
Whitaker’s character at some point would have been tested. He would have had the option to come clean. If he hadn’t, he would have tested positive, and his airline would likely have terminated him. In his case, the FAA still would have likely suspended or revoked his certificates, and he may still have been prosecuted and imprisoned for reckless endangerment, flying drunk, and general stupidity. As an aside, the movie never addresses why the first officer, who later acknowledged that Whitaker “reeked,” didn’t face repercussions either. In reality, he probably would have.
The moral of this post is this: If you need help, get it; if you know someone who needs help, find out how to help them get it; and if you are on an airplane with a pilot who clearly is not well, deal with it immediately.—By Chip Wright