Flying is not always the most comfortable or enjoyable thing in the world, even if you’re not worrying about drunk pilots. But the reality is, drunk pilots are a real problem, faced all over the world. While it certainly doesn’t limit itself to any one group of people, the epidemic of alcoholism seems to hit airline pilots particularly hard. Two recent drunk pilot incidents occurred within a week of each other, on different sides of the globe, around New Year’s 2017. One of them involved a pilot in Canada so intoxicated he passed out in his seat before the plane took off. The other involved a pilot in Indonesia suspected of attempting to fly while drunk. This incident was particularly notable because security footage shows the pilot stumbling through airport security, almost definitely under the influence at the time. Both pilots were arrested by local authorities, and in the case of the Indonesian pilot, the incident even cost some airline executives their jobs. Clearly, this is something taken very seriously, and the consequences for letting an alcohol addiction affect a pilot’s job are very severe, as both pilots have been suspended indefinitely. So what it is it about pilots that makes them so susceptible to alcoholism? How drastic is the difference between pilots with alcoholism and the rest of the public? Why do they continue to drink, even when it can potentially put their entire careers at stake? And how does this play out in their daily lives as pilots? We say it all the time, but it’s still true: The first step to beating addiction is understanding it. So we’re going to really examine this issue and get to the bottom of what pilot alcoholism really looks like, why it happens, who it affects, and what can be done about it. Let’s start with identifying the core of the problem and understanding why so many pilots turn to alcohol in the first place.
Why Are There Drunk Pilots?
There’s no better way to say it than to just be direct about it: Being a pilot is stressful. It just is. Plenty of people look at a pilot’s life and see glamour. Sure, they get to see more places and travel more often in a week than a lot of people do in their whole lives. Seeing the world is great, and most likely, people don’t sign on to be airline pilots if they’re averse to travel, in the same way they don’t study to be doctors if they’re squeamish around blood. But that kind of lifestyle has plenty of stress associated with it, even if it may be fun on some level. These pilots are away from their homes and families for extended periods of time, and rarely get time to just decompress. They work long hours, and have flights increasingly stacked back-to-back-to-back, with only a brief stay in a hotel room between. And sure, any job comes with its share of stress. Pilots aren’t unique in that sense. But this is a lifestyle many have difficulty coping with. And as is so often the case, when people have difficulty coping with their current situations, they turn to alcohol. Now, drinking isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, but pilots are in a unique situation where they are often isolated, and removed from familiar surroundings. That may lead to an increased urge to drink out of boredom or loneliness. It also means a lot of the usual signs of alcoholism can go undetected until the problem has gotten out of control. For instance, one of the biggest signs of a developing alcohol problem is when a person starts doing much of their drinking alone or in secret. For pilots, much of that drinking happens alone just by default. They’re not around close friends or family who can help keep them in check and point out a potential problem before it develops. The relative isolation of a pilot’s job makes them more likely to slip into habits without anyone noticing, and the stresses of the job make it an incubator for drinking habits to evolve. We haven’t even discussed the stress involved with actually flying the plane itself, nor the physical stress of being contained in such an enclosed area (the cockpit) for extended periods of time. The pilot’s job, hours, and working conditions lead to fatigue, which is often “treated” with a drink of something to “relax.” These are all significant factors leading to the use of alcohol in pilots, while the aforementioned isolation provides the circumstances in which that use can become habitual, and eventually compulsive.
Airplane Pilot Alcohol Regulations
Naturally, there are regulations in place meant to discourage drunk pilots from taking to the skies. The rules on drunk driving are harsh for those driving automobiles, and for good reason. But there is much more at stake when it comes to flying a plane, often in the form of hundreds of passengers. Everyone involved has very good reason to not allow drunk pilots to take the throttle of the airplane. In both of the drunk pilot cases above (in Canada and Indonesia), crew members reported the intoxicated state of the pilot and had him replaced well before the flight took off. But what are the actual regulations in place regarding pilots and alcohol? There are very specific laws in place regarding how much is too much in terms of drinking and driving, but what about drinking and flying? The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has two major alcohol regulations in place regarding drinking and flying. The most well-known of these is the “bottle to throttle” rule, which generally dictates that a certain amount of time must have passed between a pilot’s last drink and their next flight. That time frame is usually eight hours, but the second of these regulations complicates matters a bit. The second regulation is that pilots must have a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of less than 0.04% at the time of their flight. And depending on the way one’s body metabolizes alcohol, and how heavy the drinking was, it is entirely possible that a pilot follows the eight-hour rule, and still has a BAC over the legal limit of 0.04% when their flight takes off. For comparison, the “legal limit” for drunk driving in most states is 0.08%. It is partially for this reason that several airlines have much more strict 12-hour “bottle to throttle” guidelines, and many new pilots today are being taught to leave as much as 24 hours between drinking and flying. Hangover symptoms can last for as much as 48 hours, and the FAA is looking to regulate any situation in which a pilot’s mental or visual acuity is compromised. Being hungover definitely qualifies as one of those situations. And as we’ve discussed already, the consequences for infractions in these regulations are exceptionally severe. Even so much as a failed breathalyzer test will result in the revocation of a pilot’s certification for a minimum of one year. It often leads to criminal prosecution as well, as most states have laws prohibiting a pilot from even attempting to fly while under the influence. Knowing the rules of how to manage alcohol and flying is important, but it’s equally important to understand just how severe the consequences can be. Now, a common question is, “if the FAA is so particular about alcohol use, why all the specific numbers, percentages and guidelines? Why not simply ban all alcohol use for pilots?” Obviously, the FAA and airlines are committed to keeping drunk pilots grounded and out of planes, and so this measure may seem to make sense on the surface. But a measure this strict would undoubtedly cause unintended side effects. When the U.S. government enforced Prohibition, it simply forced the alcohol industry underground, making it less safe for everyone. It didn’t actually stop the sale and consumption of alcohol. The FAA fears the same would be true of a total ban on alcohol – rather than prevent drunk pilots, it would simply compel pilots to drink in secret, and cause them to focus on deceiving their employers, rather than actually being accountable. That’s the opposite of what anybody wants, and would create even more of an incubator for serious alcoholism to occur. So instead, the better course of action is to make pilots accountable and expect them to be responsible by managing their alcohol consumption, keeping it at levels that don’t affect their ability to perform. Still, the stress of the job makes it particularly difficult to keep that in check.
More About Airplane Pilot Stress
This is something worth going into more detail about, because we tend to dismiss “stress” as simply one of those things everybody has. That’s true to some extent. Everybody deals with stress in their lives. But that’s no reason to dismiss it as a serious issue, or ignore it when it stacks up especially high on one person. Being an airline pilot is one of the most stressful jobs anyone can have, ranking right up there with police officers, firefighters and enlisted military personnel. Admittedly, a pilot’s job pays better, and is exponentially less dangerous than any of those other jobs, but stress is still stress. Pilots frequently are asked to work long hours, often flying multiple routes in a single day with very little in the way of downtime. Rest periods between shifts have been whittled down to the minimum allowable amount, while pressure to give more and more continues to mount. Turnaround times are shorter, and the strain of repeated compression and decompression on the body mounts very quickly if the body isn’t allowed time to rest. So when that shift ends, what’s the first thing a pilot is going to do? They’re going to go find something that helps them relax after a long, stressful day of hopping from airport to airport, flying hundreds of passengers in the process. And very often, that something is alcohol, even though they may very well sleep better sober. Ironically, many of the same things that can cause stress for airline passengers also affect pilots. Here are a few stressful things about flying that affect pilots just the same as they do passengers, but in even worse ways:
- jet lag
- uncomfortable conditions
Pilots are effectively jet lagged every single day, since they’re dealing with constant changes in time zones, on top of working hours that are already irregular and often don’t allow for sufficient rest. As bad as flying in economy class may be, the cockpit of the plane is small, cramped, and not particularly comfortable, and the pilot is confined to it for the duration of the flight. This can cause extreme fatigue, stacked onto the pilot’s need to be constantly alert and ready to react to something unexpected happening. They don’t get to watch movies on the flight. And you know something? Pilots don’t like turbulence any more than passengers do. It’s unpleasant and scary, and when it’s persistent, it’s the pilot’s job to do something about it. Of course, if a passenger is stressed out by the flight conditions, they have the option of calming their nerves with a drink. The pilot has to wait until the flight lands – and then possibly after a couple more flights as well. The stress and pressure on airplane pilots to continue to perform adequately under increasingly harsh conditions is only just now coming to light, and even still, regulatory bodies are in disagreement about how big a problem it is and what should be done about it.
How Alcohol Affects a Pilot
You might be expecting that the effects of alcohol on a drunk pilot are going to similar to the effects of alcohol on, say, a drunk driver (of a car). Well, you’d be expecting wrong. There are a couple of key differences that really change the nature of drinking in airline pilots versus people in other professions or situations. For starters, this seems obvious to say, but pilots have elevation to contend with. Many of them spend a great deal of their time in the stratosphere. Why is that important? Because alcohol has amplified effects at higher altitudes. In the dry, compressed air of an airplane cabin at high altitudes, the body’s ability to absorb oxygen is already impaired. This makes it more difficult to process alcohol as well. As a result, the side effects of a drink may end up being two or three times more pronounced at high altitudes compared to what it would be at sea level. Additionally, studies have shown that alcohol is absorbed into the fluid of the inner ear – another area that is directly affected by altitude. And if alcohol is absorbed by the inner ear, it takes much longer to metabolize out than it does in other parts of the body. Since the inner ear affects balance, the introduction of alcohol to the inner ear can result in:
- spacial confusion
It should be obvious why a pilot with vertigo is an extremely bad thing. And this is all just about how alcohol affects a pilot professionally. We’re not even getting into the ways alcohol and drug addiction affects people in their everyday lives. It’s already well-known that alcoholism can tear people’s lives apart, and problems on the job are only a very small part of that. If there’s a good thing to be said about how alcoholism affects pilots, it’s that it doesn’t often progress to the point that drunk pilots are putting passenger lives in danger. Flight crews are trained to look for signs of intoxication, and will definitely report a problem to ensure a drunk pilot cannot fly the plane – after all, it’s their lives at risk as well.
Pilots Drinking is Not a Recent Thing
Before you go pining for the “good old days” where we didn’t have to worry about drunk pilots ruining aviation for everyone, calm down. Drunk pilots have been around for about as long as pilots have. The New England Journal of Medicine cites a report from 1963 that stated over 35% of fatal general aviation accidents that year involved pilots with measurable amounts of alcohol in their blood. Those numbers may not be perfect (the article admits potential flaws in the study), but they do suggest a trend that has been around for at least a few decades. Bloomberg also details a number of instances over the last four decades in which drunk pilots have either been caught or been involved in crashes. However, it’s important to note that a drunk pilot has never caused a commercial airline crash. The built-in safety protocols preventing drunk pilots from taking to the sky in commercial passenger aircraft seem to work exceptionally well. Crew members know to report someone they suspect of being under the influence, but more importantly, the pilots themselves seem to understand what’s at stake. Of over 10,000 pilots randomly tested for alcohol in 2010, only 12 failed the test. Those that do fail frequently find themselves serving prison time or at least a probation sentence. Considering how much training is required to become a pilot, and how well it pays, it’s understandable that pilots would think twice about endangering their lives and livelihoods. But that line of thinking only comes into play when the pilots are really thinking about their situation logically. Addiction and alcoholism affects people’s decision-making ability to such a degree that they might actually be willing to take that risk, even with an almost 100% chance of being caught. It’s for the people at that point that we want to say, “there is help, and now might be your last best chance to seek it.”
Pilot Alcohol and Drug Recovery
Luckily, most pilots’ unions and labor organizations understand the kinds of conditions pilots are put under on a regular basis. As a result, they are very aware of how possible it is to develop an alcohol problem in this profession, and have introduced avenues to get treatment for an alcohol or drug problem without sinking the career they’ve worked so hard to build. The FAA has done a good job of making its requirements clear and reasonable, combining strict enforcement of those rules with a system that encourages drunk pilots with a problem to step forward. Naturally, a drunk pilot that needs to go to a pilot rehab won’t be flying while they’re getting treatment. But there are a number of rehab facilities that are specifically geared to helping pilots overcome their problems and getting back in the air as soon as it’s safe for them and their passengers. That isn’t to say these facilities are just passing people through and rubber-stamping everything without helping them. But a pilot’s path to alcoholism has certain traits to it that tend to be shared by the people in the profession. And because these facilities understand those factors, they are better-equipped to treat and understand them. A big part of substance abuse recovery is the process of truly understanding and identifying the reasons behind one’s addiction. Once that is identified, they can move into identifying risk factors and helping pilots understand the circumstances that lead them to drink. Everybody’s path to addiction has some different features and characteristics, but there are a lot of common threads between pilots that make these treatment centers particularly well-equipped to get them help. In some cases, detox may even be necessary for pilots with a heavy drinking problem. Alcohol withdrawals can be deadly if not medically supervised, so treatment facilities are prepared to deal with this possibility as well. Whatever a pilot’s needs, these facilities are designed to zero in on their specific problem and its origin, provide them therapy and alcoholic counseling to avoid it, and get them back in the air, flying safely with the continuing support to keep their drinking under control.
If you’re an airline pilot with a drinking problem, or you suspect you know someone who is, you should know that you’re not alone. This is not an isolated problem, nor is it something shameful. As we’ve discussed, pilots are under extreme stress in their jobs, and alcohol all too often seems like a natural decision to unwind from a stressful day. While the FAA and individual airlines set guidelines regulating a pilot’s alcohol intake in relation to their flight schedule, there are still serious risk factors pointing to addiction in the profession. This isn’t a new problem, but today it is easier than ever to get treatment for pilots. Do you have any experience, either personal or secondhand, with a drunk pilot? We want to hear from you on this important issue, so leave a comment below.
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