Drug testing is a fact of life at the airlines. You can count on being tested as a new hire, and then you’ll be subjected to random testing for the rest of your career. The FAA requires that 25 percent of pilots, chosen at random, get tested annually. The airline handles the details, or perhaps the testing company it contracts with to process the sample collections.
The standard profile calls for alcohol, marijuana, and several illegal recreational drugs. Recently, however, natural and synthetic opioids were added to the list. This is clearly in response to the national opioid epidemic, but it isn’t really a surprise. Used as intended, opioids such as Percocet, Oxycontin, et cetera, are extremely effective anti-pain medications used to treat various injuries or to ease recovery from some surgical procedures.
Unfortunately, these medicines are also extremely addictive, and as evidenced by the large number of deaths the last several years, they are too easy to acquire (in fact, NBC News did a segment showing how easy it was to order synthetic opioids online and have them shipped to your home). The FAA has added such testing not so much to catch pilots in the act, but as a deterrent. In my experience, most pilots are tested after they are finished flying. I’ve yet to see a test administered before a trip. It wouldn’t matter in the sense that it takes several days to get the results back, but if a pilot is tested before he or she flies and then comes up positive, it could create a public relations nightmare for the company.
If you’re ever prescribed one of these medications, you can minimize the risks of a positive test fairly easily. First, ask if something else might work just as effectively. If not, ask for the minimum number of pills that you might need, and then only take them when you absolutely need them. Second, ask detailed questions about how long you need to allow the remnants of the last dosage to leave your system. Whatever that time is, added another 48 hours before you return to work. Third, read the enclosed literature, or search the manufacturer’s website for more detailed information. Better yet, contact the manufacturer directly and ask them how long you need to wait to ensure a passed drug test.
If you’re flying internationally, you should also be aware that some countries have far more rigid rules with respect to the presence of alcohol. The United Kingdom is famous for this, and they’ve recently added some enhanced procedures to prevent pilots from flying under the influence. Keep this in mind if you plan to imbibe a bit while you’re on a trip.
There is very little leeway for flying with any hint of drugs in your system, and the rules can vary wildly from one country to the next. Play it safe, and if there is any chance you might have any in your system, ground yourself until you can be sure you’re completely clean.—Chip Wright