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United Pilot Fails Breathalyzer Test: Are Drunk Pilots A Serious Problem?

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United logoA United Airlines pilot accused of being over the legal blood-alcohol limit was pulled off a flight from London’s Heathrow Airport headed to Chicago, raising questions about how alcohol intake can affect pilots.

Pilot Erwin Vermont Washington was arrested after allegedly failing a breathalyzer test administered after a concerned United employee notified authorities before takeoff.

It’s not yet clear how much alcohol the pilot is accused of consuming.

According to United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy, “Safety is our highest priority and the pilot has been removed from service while we are cooperating with authorities and conducting a full investigation.” United claims its alcohol policy is among the strictest in the industry and that it has no tolerance for violations.

Under British law, the blood-alcohol limit for pilots is 0.02 percent, the equivalent of about a glass of beer. That rule is stricter than in the United States, where the legal limit for pilots is 0.04 percent or above.

Check out United’s financial health with 3rd Quarter Profit Reports Paint Mixed Picture of Airline Industry.

FAA logoThe FAA’s policy on alcohol and drug use also states that no person may operate or attempt to operate an aircraft within 8 hours of having consumed alcohol, known in the industry as “8 hours from bottle to throttle.”

The FAA recommends that pilots take a more conservative approach and avoid alcohol a full 24 hours before flying, and to consider the effects of a hangover on flying abilities.

According to the FAA, studies have shown that the number of serious errors committed by pilots dramatically increases at or above 0.04 percent blood alcohol. Other studies suggest that pilot performance can suffer with blood-alcohol concentrations as low as 0.025 percent.

For more, check out our Travel Safety & Security section.

Alcohol consumption has been shown to impair pilots’ abilities to handle an instrument landing system approach, to follow instrument flight rules (relying on the aircraft instrument panel for navigation), and to perform routine visual flight tasks (using visual cues at lower altitudes).

Air trafficBased on the FAA’s 0.04 percent limit, 13 pilots violated the rules in 2008. Washington is the third U.S. pilot arrested in just over a year on alcohol-related charges: In October 2008, another United pilot was arrested for the same charge on a flight that was heading from Heathrow to San Francisco; in January, a Southwest Airlines pilot was put on leave after passengers alerted security screeners that he reeked of alcohol; in May, an American Airlines pilot, also bound from Heathrow to Chicago, was arrested after failing a breathalyzer test.

In a particularly dramatic situation last December, concerned passengers on an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to New York revolted before takeoff when they suspected their pilot was drunk after hearing his slurred pre-flight announcement. The pilot eventually staggered out of the cockpit, agreeing to pass control over to the other three pilots on board. Aeroflot first tried to assure passengers that “it’s not such a big deal if the pilot is drunk,” but later claimed the pilot was sober and may have suffered a stroke before takeoff.

Learn more about this situation with: What to Do If You Think Your Pilot is Drunk & Other Dangerous Air Travel Scenarios

United Flight 949 was about to take off from London’s Heathrow Airport for Chicago’s O’Hare with 124 passengers on board. The flight was canceled and all passengers were rebooked.

By Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com.

Related links: USA Today, National Public Radio, The Telegraph (UK), FAA.gov – Pilot Safety PDF

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