Having worked in the airlines for more than 20 years, I’ve seen a few things that have made me scratch my head—be it management decisions about company strategy, policies that are ill-advised, or passengers who act out in ways that are not only unusual, but unacceptable. Unfortunately, I’ve also witnessed a few employees conduct themselves in ways that are both professionally and socially unacceptable.
Most companies of any size will eventually deal with an employee who acts bizarrely or out of character. Most of the time, it doesn’t get any play on the local news, let alone CNN. However, the airlines are different, and when somebody does something that garners attention, it often goes viral within minutes. Too often, by the time the company hears about it, the incident has been disseminated to millions.
So, what to do? What not to do? Within an airline, the only two work groups that are required to pass an FAA medical are the dispatchers and the pilots. While the company can (and will) have certain expectations about your fitness when you show up to work, only pilots and dispatchers are required to meet a minimum established by the FAA, and are therefore expected to self-monitor their mental and physical well-being. Being sick does not mean you have to be down with the flu or a broken leg. It simply means that for any number of reasons you may not be up to the task. You may be overwhelmed by a problem at home: divorce, new baby, even a sick dog. If in your own judgment you can’t call yourself fit for duty, you are obligated to call in sick. It is, in fact, a federal aviation regulation.
But what happens when somebody chooses to come to work anyway, even though they shouldn’t? Or what if they don’t even realize that they shouldn’t come to work, or if they act…strangely? FAR 117 helps put the onus on the captain to vouch for the fitness of the first officer, but the rest of Part 91 helps make it clear that the FO does the same if he or she believes that the captain or one of the flight attendants is sick. As an FO, I once had to tell a captain that he was in no shape to fly and needed to call in sick. He thanked me then and later, and told me that I had done the right thing.
In recent years, there have been several instances of pilots acting in strange ways. On the ground, the first thing an FO should do is try and talk to the other pilot, especially if they’re working the same flight. Often, a simple conversation will provide valuable insight into the other person’s mood and state of mind. If the individual starts to put up red flags, try to ask another nearby person to speak to them. But if it’s clear that something is wrong, such as incoherent speech, random thoughts that don’t correlate to the conversation, the odor of alcohol or drugs, or apparent physical instability, then more drastic action needs to be taken. Every airline has a different specific plan of action, but the generalities are pretty common.
In such a case, the first call needs to be a manager on duty, such as a chief pilot or the head honcho for the day in scheduling. Even calling dispatch is sufficient. All you need to do is reach someone who can delay a flight long enough for you to allay your concerns to those up the chain of command. Phone calls to scheduling are almost always recorded, so calling via the scheduling department may not be a bad way to get started.—Chip Wright