My last post discussed the initial steps in dealing with a fellow employee that begins acting strangely. Once the decision to intervene is made, events will often move beyond your control.
So, what happens when you do this? Unless you’re dealing with a completely incompetent manager—possible, but not likely—the Chief Pilots office will likely try to contact the affected pilot, and will ascertain the situation via the phone. They may also call the gate agents working the flight to ask for their observations. On-site supervisors will also likely be called. If the incident is taking place in a hub or a base, they will go to the gate and assess the situation in person. Either way, a decision will be made as to whether or not the pilot should be allowed to work the trip. If warranted, a drug test may be scheduled.
What happens next? That depends. If a pilot acts out in a way that causes concern about their mental health or emotional well-being, they may be grounded for an extended period of time, following an intense treatment protocol. It’s possible that a pilot is acting out because they’ve had a reaction to medication (or several medications), or because they are under great strain at home. It’s also possible that the pilot is just not a nice person or simply can’t get along with others. That said, it takes an extreme case to get the attention of the FAA, but once you do, getting rid of that attention is very difficult.
If a person is found to have a chemical dependency problem, there are several programs and avenues for an eventual return to work, but it will be a long, hard slog. In recent years, the FAA has finally come to its senses and allowed pilots to fly while under treatment and care for depression (pilots had been doing this for years, but they remained under the radar). Just because there is a problem does not mean that your career is over, though it may take an indefinite pause. In my own observations, airlines are more than willing to help a pilot that has a genuine interest in getting back on track and takes responsibility where appropriate. Pilots that get fired tend to be the ones that have acted either egregiously, or have simply run out of more than their fair of chances with their supervisors.
These situations are always fraught with the possibility for a major misunderstanding and/or hard feelings. It’s natural to worry about harming the reputation of another coworker. Just because someone is having a bad day doesn’t mean that they’re off their rocker or unfit to fly. But, sometimes a judgement call is necessary. Fortunately, it will almost never be up to you.
If it’s a pilot you are supposed to fly with, the easiest course of action is to get off the plane until the situation is resolved to your satisfaction. Most of us will never have to deal with these situations directly, but whether you work for an airline or any other company, it’s important that you follow the expected protocols and treat all persons involved with decency and respect, no matter how strong your suspicions.