FUI or FWI? Impaired Professionals


I was ruminating on the challenges presented by marijuana recently. Since writing But its Legal, the plight of the Colorado family involved has made it to the fore of news coverage. As I have been reminded of the conflict of presence versus impairment, I have returned to this discussion repeatedly in recent days. It arose repeatedly in conversations at the recent WCI conference in Orlando.  

It also came back to mind when CBS News reported that "a former Alaska Airlines pilot" has been sentenced to jail time related to his consumption of alcohol. The 63 year old pilot made two flights after he consumed alcohol. After concluding the second flight, he was "selected for random drug and alcohol testing by Alaska Airlines."  

That testing revealed he had been drinking. There were two tests, with results that were not identical. Reportedly, "he was found to have a blood alcohol level of 0.134 percent and 0.142 percent." In Florida, a blood alcohol of .08 will create a legal presumption of being alcohol impaired, and driving a car is inappropriate. The pilot no longer works for Alaska Air (AKA), has lost his pilot's license, and is going to jail. 

In a similar case last June, Metro News reported a British Airways (BA) pilot was arrested when he arrived for a flight after consuming alcohol. He did not actually conduct the flight as the AKA pilot did, because his consumption was discovered. The BA pilot was similarly tested and found to have "86mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood in his system." Because he was prevented from flying the trip, the departure of his scheduled flight was delayed for about three hours. As a side note, much of the world now uses that metric system I was force-fed in elementary school on the premise that it would "soon" replace our American standards of measure.  

From the safety standpoint, it is a bit concerning that people we count upon to make a multitude of decisions and judgments may be operating aircraft while impaired, or even merely distracted. Reportedly, an Air China crew member was recently vaping in a cockpit. Not wanting the passengers to know of his vaping, he sought to turn off the air re-circulation system. By mistake or because of distraction, he instead turned off the air conditioner. This resulted in the plane reducing altitude dramatically to correct pressurization issues caused by the mistake, according to avweb.com.  

The vaping article suggests that it may be quiet simple in an aircraft to make little mistakes that could have significant implications. Travel and Leisure reported that the air conditioner debilitation led to a loss of cabin pressure and the pilots had to descend 20,000 feet on an emergency basis, with the passenger air masks deploying. Reportedly, the Civil Aviation Adminstration of China will take a "zero tolerance approach to the investigation" of the vaping plot. 

It is alarming that pilots, professionals, would operate aircraft impaired by alcohol. Driving a car is a difficult task in the best of circumstances. It becomes more difficult when complications such as weather, traffic, or vehicle dysfunction are added. Many readers will acknowledge from experience, if only to themselves, that operating a car after consuming alcohol is even more of a challenge.  

Operating a plane is somewhat more difficult than a car. Remember that cars are objects that travel forward and back, left and right (in two dimensions). They generally stick to defined routes that are often paved, painted, and provided with signage. Planes travel in three dimensions, adding up and down to those dimensions cars use. Planes travel in any direction, without the aid of lanes or signs. Anyone who has piloted one will likely admit it is a challenging avocation. The British Court, noted this distinction: "A pilot in a Boeing 777 is somewhat different from driving on the road," according to Metro News.  

As an aside, the 777 is among the largest passenger aircraft in the world according to Antaeus Travel and TourismBoeing says that the craft is up to 242 feet in length with a wingspan of 212 feet, and about sixty feet tall. It weighs something close to 700,000 pounds, and cruises at over 500 miles per hour. This is a significant set of dimensions and capabilities. And, despite that a licensed pilot made a conscious decision to attempt to operate one after drinking.  

However, the most surprising and intriguing part of the two articles about drinking pilots therefore perhaps lies not in the presence of alcohol. In the twenty-first century, perhaps we are all a bit jaded, less than surprised when we see someone acting inappropriately in such a manner. 

An interesting and important point from my perspective is that for pilots, there is no "zero tolerance" of alcohol. Presence is acknowledged and acceptable. The Air Alaska pilot tested "a blood alcohol level of 0.134 to 0.142. Both exceed the .08 limit for the far more mundane operation of a car. And, the CBS News story states that "the federal limit for pilots is 0.04." You may not be as inebriated as you may to drive, but it is legal to consume alcohol and fly a commercial aircraft. That is also true in the United Kingdom, the Metro News noted that "the legal limit for a pilot is 20mg." In each country, there is a level of alcohol that is acceptable for pilots. 

Apparently, it is permissible to "drink and fly" an airplane worth at least tens of millions of dollars, and with hundreds of lives under your care. A pilot may legally drink and fly (would we call that FUI or FWI?), so long as she/he does not drink too much. Frankly, I find myself (as our British cousins would say) gobsmacked. There are a fair number of employers with "zero tolerance" for alcohol or other impairment, but there is a level of alcohol consumption acceptable for pilots. 

But it was exceeded in these two examples. The Air Alaska pilot was 3 to 3.5 times "the federal limit" that has been deemed acceptable. The British Airways pilot was over 4 times the limit. Thus, neither was safe to operate a car. The Air Alaska pilot has been sentenced to jail time and the British Airways pilot faces that potentiality as well. We learn from this that today we are confronted with professionals responsible for our safety, working under the influence. They take on complex and challenging jobs, and disregard regulation and law. And, remember that the Air China depressurization reminds us of complexity and the ease of making a mistake without impairment. 

The presence of alcohol can be effectively tested. The current science affords support for equating various volumes of "presence" with "impairment." That testing plays a role in the fate of these two professionals who strayed. A challenge of the coming age of dope will be in the formation and enforcement of standards that likewise allow detection of both presence and impairment of THC. 

The challenge will be in defining appropriate standards that scientifically allow measure of impairment from cannabis. We see drinking news that leads passengers to perhaps fear for their safety, to distrust the supposed professionals at the controls. Those passengers, and the public on the ground, deserve to know that the pilot controlling this massive vehicle is not impaired. With the growth in non-alcohol drug use, how can the public be protected? Will governments adopt some threshold of "safe" marijuana use for pilots?  

How do passengers restore their faith in those at the controls? How do we assure the public of their safety, whether those around us drink, smoke weed, or are just distracted?


David Langham is the Florida Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims. He blogs weekly regarding system issues, regulations and decisions. He has published many articles and delivered more than 1,000 professional speeches.

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    About The Author

    • Judge David Langham

      David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute, and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.

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