Pilots and Alcohol

Pilots and Alcohol

August 15, 2019

ON AUGUST 3rd, two United Airlines pilots were arrested at the airport in Glasgow, Scotland, after allegedly failing a breathalyzer test prior to operating a flight to Newark, New Jersey.

Curiously, this is not the first time a United crew arrested in Glasgow for the same alleged offense. In August, 2016, at the very same airport, a pair of United pilots were taken into custody under almost identical circumstances.

This is a tough one for me — maybe the most difficult of any subject to tackle. Incidents like these are a shameful black eye for the profession. The sound you heard was that of thousands of pilots everywhere groaning with embarrassment, if not anger. And they have kept alive a lingering stereotype of the airline pilot: the hard-drinking, renegade divorcee, with crows’ feet flanking his eyes and a whiskey-tempered drawl, a flask tucked into his flight case. And it’s easy to jump to conclusions. For every pilot nabbed, there must be ten others over the legal limit, right?

No, frankly. I have to acknowledge that yes, pilots have, on several occasions now, been found guilty of flying, or attempting to fly, under the influence. At the same time, it needs to be made clear how unusual this is. Tens of thousands of commercial flights depart daily around the world. Of all the things might endanger even one of these aircraft, intoxicated pilots is about as statistically insignificant a threat as might exist. I understand and expect that passengers will worry about all sorts of things, rational and otherwise. But as a rule, whether or not your pilots are drunk should not be one of them. These rare and isolated incidents deserve the attention they receive, and they need to be taken seriously. But they are not a symptom of some dangerous and unseen crisis. My personal observations are hardly a scientific sample, but I’ve been flying commercially since 1990 and I have never once been in a cockpit with a pilot who I suspected was intoxicated.

This is not something pilots play fast and loose with. Why would they, with their careers, to say nothing of the lives of their passengers, hanging in the balance? Violators are subject to immediate, emergency revocation of their pilot certificates.

The FAA blood alcohol limit for airline pilots in the United States is .04 percent, and we are banned from consuming alcohol within eight hours of reporting for duty. Pilots must also comply with their employer’s in-house policies, which tend to be tougher. (In the wake of the most recent Glasgow incident, United as moved to a minimum twelve-hour rule.) Above and beyond that, we’re subject to random, unannounced testing for drugs and alcohol. Overseas, the regulations are even tighter. In Britain, the legal limit is set at twenty milligrams of alcohol per one hundred milliliters of blood. That’s four times lower than the British limit for drunk driving and equates to about .02 percent blood alcohol level.

Not for nothing, though: Scottish regulations are more strict that those of the FAA. The legal limit is about .02 percent blood alcohol level. It’s not impossible for a pilot to be in full compliance with the time restrictions and not feel any of the typical signs of intoxication, yet still be in violation. The same can sometimes be said for our own .04. That’s not an excuse; I have no problem with a requirement that pilots abide by a higher, more conservative standard than others. If we need to be extremely careful, so be it, that’s part of our job. But it’s something to think about, and passengers should realize that “flying drunk” isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem.

It’s also true that more than one airline pilot has been pulled aside after a passenger, TSA guards, or other airport worker wrongly suspected the pilot was intoxicated. Typically in such cases, the papers and TV news hastily report the initial suspicion, but not the vindication.

Having said all that, it should go without saying that alcoholism exists in aviation. Just as it exists in every other profession, including many with public safety To their credit, air carriers and pilot unions like ALPA have been very successful with proactive programs that encourage pilots to seek treatment. This has helped keep the problem from being driven underground, where it’s more likely to be a public safety issue.

Not long ago I flew with a colleague who participated in the highly successful HIMS program — an intervention and treatment system put together several years ago by ALPA and the FAA. HIMS has treated more than 4,000 pilots and records a success rate of near 90 percent, with only 10-12 percent of participants suffering relapse. I asked that colleague if, prior to going into HIMS, he’d ever knowingly flown under the influence. His answer was a firm and very believable no.

Some of you may be familiar with the tale of former Northwest Airlines captain Lyle Prouse. Prouse, together with the other two pilots in his crew, was arrested one morning in Minnesota in 1990. All three had spent the previous evening’s layover at a bar in Fargo, North Dakota, downing as many as nineteen rum and Cokes. Tests showed their blood-alcohol levels far beyond the legal limit.

Prouse was sentenced to 16 months in federal prison. An alcoholic whose parents had died of the disease, he later became a poster pilot for punishment and redemption. AFter a remarkable and improbable sequence of events, he was able to return to the cockpit on his 60th birthday and retire as a 747 captain.

Once out of jail, Prouse was forced to requalify for every one of his FAA licenses and ratings. Broke, he relied on a friend to lend him stick time in a single-engine trainer. Northwest’s then-CEO, John Dasburg, who himself had grown up in an alcoholic family, took a personal interest in Prouse’s struggle and lobbied publicly for his return.

You’ll see Prouse in interviews from time to time, and inevitably you’ll be struck by how forthrightly he takes responsibility, without resorting to the sobby self-flagellation of most public apologies. Always one is left, unexpectedly, to conclude that this convicted felon deserved his second chance. In 2001 he was granted a Presidential pardon from Bill Clinton.


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27 Responses to “Pilots and Alcohol”
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  1. Alan Doak says:

    It leaves me wondering whether a minor case of Auto-brewery Syndrome (production in the gut of detectable levels of ethanol) is a professional hazard for airline pilots.

  2. Martin says:

    You are doubtless right, Patrick, that carriers in the US and western Europe run a tight ship regarding alcohol, and that most pilots for those airlines are also firm adherents to the guidelines. My worry, though, is when I fly in Russia. I have heard first-hand accounts of rounds of vodka in the cockpit, which is in keeping with all I’ve seen in the country of love of the national spirit. Walk into a Russian grocery store and you will see literally a wall of vodka – why should a pilot be less of a man about choosing a bottle from this wall? While I have no information about whether any Russian planes have ever crashed due to pilot drunkenness, I am always anxious when I get on a plane in Siberia at 5am, often with fellow passengers who have whiled away their night in the hotel bar, that the people flying the plane have done the same.

  3. John Wodarz says:


    Thank you for addressing the problem. I agree with you. All industries and all walks of life have drug & alcohol issues.

    I totally understand.

    Could it be that traveling, always somewhere else makes individuals make decisions they wouldn’t do at home?

    Heck, most of the traveling public would never consider having a donut or a double margarita at 7am or whatever hour if they were at home. it’s a psychological thing.

    Truck drivers to rock stars to airline industry folks. you name it.

    It’s tough.

    I have full faith in everyone in the airline industry. Statistics show we are more likely to buy it an an Ubur accident from the trip from any airport.

    The skies are safe.

    Thank you for listening.

    John Wodarz

  4. Lee Taplinger says:

    Just to put things in perspective, setting a BAL at a miniscule level may actually be counter-productive. I had a racquetball instructor who competed successfully at a high level who would drink a “pony” bottle of beer before a match. He said a small amount of alcohol relaxed him just enough to increase his skill level. I have found the same to be true when motorcycling on two-lane mountain blacktops – the key to skillful motorcycling is to stay relaxed, the looser your grip the better, a tight grip leads to problems in cornering. People will often give their worst performance when they’re hung over and unfortunately there’s no test for that – they could have 0 BAL and a throbbing headache.

  5. Ronald W Buckley says:

    Doesn’t altitude effect alcohol in the blood stream in a negative way. Or does a pressurized cabin take care of that?

  6. Jim Houghton says:

    I’m not worried because of redundancy, but when BOTH pilots turn up over the limit, that starts to move into the scary zone.

  7. Tom Z says:

    In the early 1980’s I attended the first nationwide HIMS seminar in Denver. Every Airline from Bar Harbor to Pan Am and all in between sent representatives. The various Unions sent reps. as well as some AME’s.The Chief Flight Surgeon, Audie Davis opened the week long seminar with the statement that if 10% of the population were alcoholics then airline pilots were no different. The FAA, Airlines and Unions set the goal of saving pilot’s careers and health! The HIMS program is one of the most successful in saving lives and careers!
    I’m proud to have been just a very small part of it!
    Airline Pilot Retired

  8. Kevin B says:

    I’m all for the voluntary help programs – we’ve come a long way since my father flew dc3’s for Eastern Sirlines after WW2- he flew with a captain who had a flask and later as a senior co pilot was assigned captains who were know to imbibe-back in the 40’s flying was not for sissy’s and senior pilots trained in the 30’s – pilots had to pay a big premium if they were given life insurance at all and were paid a big premium for flying over water.

    Yes, we’ve come a long way and hopefully the success of the program can be brought to other public safety jobs

  9. Tom Ritchford says:

    Just wanted to say that I found the Lyle Prouse story extremely moving…

  10. Matthew Barich says:

    In the book “Goodnight Malaysian 370”, it mentions that plane crashes caused by pilots deliberately crashing planes are more common than plane crashes caused by pilots drinking alcohol.

    You should read that book. It does a far better analysis of MH370 than any other media I’ve seen, even better than the article you mentioned recently.

    I read it a few years ago; I’ve known for a long time what must have happened with MH370.

    I actually have known since about 3 weeks after it happened.

  11. Babbette says:

    Now I want to go to Glasgow airport just to see that bar–and I don’t even drink!

  12. David says:

    Hi Patrick. With your admonition to “watch your spelling and grammar” I can’t resist. In your “pilots and alcohol” post you write: “I’ve been flying commercially since 1990 and I have never once been in a cockpit with a pilot I knew or suspected of being intoxicated”. Needs to be: “… with a pilot I knew was or suspected of being intoxicated”. David

  13. Parker West says:

    Three incidents are ingrained in my mind, indicative that the frequency of drunk pilots sttempting to fly an aircraft is very rare. My wife was flying with HP America West when two company pilots were arrested in Miami for clearly being drunk. The reports claimed that the PIC tried to taxi with the TUG still attached. For months crews were forced to hear idiotic comments and jokes coming from PAs regarding the Miami incident. “Did our pilots stumble in or were they sober?”, “You should carry a breathalyzer with you to check on your plots, You have to admit it’s a good idea”
    The first incident I was aware of involved two Northwest pilots who were found to have been drinking prior to flying. This spawned the “rip roaringly funny” response to being asked what a PA wanted to drink,”Oh just give me what the pilots are drinking. I believe there have been other incidents at NW before their merger.
    The example you mentioned was reported worldwide causing embarrassment to all US carriers. The personal risks to drinking anytime on a crew layover are so great that doing so implies that a pilot or pilots are poor risk managers which doesn’t give the flying public confidence. If they would drink when doing so is illegal costing you your job, how will the person handle the many risks that confront a pilot constantly.

  14. Preppy6917 says:

    I’m a recovering alcoholic myself. I’m very curious to learn what HIMS considers to be “successful” treatment. 90% is a staggeringly high rate.

  15. Jimmy Farris says:

    Well written. I’ve been flying ‘corporate’ (not airlines) for 42 years and have logged over 26K hours. I’ve never seen (nor have heard) of a fellow pilot showing up for work intoxicated. Passengers need not worry about this matter, in my opinion.

  16. UncleStu says:

    I’ve always been more worried about possible bad behavior by passengers than by any crew member.

    Sure enough, I’ve been right about it.

  17. Catherine says:

    Correction to my statement. The AWA pilots were not taxing when recalled.

  18. Catherine says:

    I am glad you addressed this topic as I was thinking of emailing you to do so. American West Airlines 556 pilots were already taxing when ordered back to the terminal. They drank most of the night before their shift. And eight or even 12 hours may not be enough if the drinking was heavy. And the effects of heavy drinking go beyond alcohol blood levels; dehydration, headache, etc.

    Why not have a simple breathalyser test for pilots and attendants when they check in for their shift conducted by independent airport security? I think the expense would be worth it as it would put everyone’s mind at ease. Even if the events are rare, they are only the ones where the pilots were actually caught or the media found out.

    Saving just one flight, one group of passengers, airline employees, an expensive aircraft and possibly people and property on the group would make it worth it?

  19. JOhn says:

    I think you meant to say “Why would they, with the lives of their passengers hanging in the balance?”

    Keep up the good work!

  20. Paul says:

    I guess it should read “four times *lower* than the British drink driving limit”, which is 80mg alcohol in 100ml blood so 0.08%, as you suggest.

  21. Patrick, are you saying the limit – about 0.02% for flying, “four times the British limit for drunk driving” means the drunk driving limit is 0.005%? Or is the flying limit “one fourth” the limit for driving? That would make the driving limit about the same as Massachusetts if I’m correct, at 0.08%…

    Apologize if this is just pedantic, but I’m more likely to drive over there than I am to fly.

    • Michael Jennings says:

      The English limit for drink driving is 0.08, so Patrick meant that the rule for pilots is four times as strict – ie pilots are only allowed a quarter of the alcohol as are drivers.

      Just to be more pedantic, though, the Scottish limit for drink driving is actually different to that in England. It’s 0.05 in Scotland, so only two and a half times as strict as for pilots.

  22. Dan Ullman says:

    The most important part of HIMS is that you can do the program without having your license being threatened or being blackballed or fired.

    • Parker West says:

      Whoa Nellie, I know that the America West pilots were fired, as well as being sentenced to jail. As far as the NW people the first two were fired, any others I don’t know. I believe there was some connection to DUIs pilots may have received coming and going to or from their their assignments by Minnesota police.
      The program sounds like a lifesaver, I don’t see how it could prevent a pilot from being fired with cause. Of course you can try and include anything in a union contract. In the case of drinking, public opinion is not going to favor the pilots affected.

      • James David Walley says:

        I believe the HIMS program is for self-reporting pilots with nothing yet on their record, not ones that have already been busted by the airline or law enforcement for attempting to fly while intoxicated.