A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

October 2009

Throw the Drunk Off the Plane

        The airline passenger in row 11, seat 3 was obnoxious, demanding, loud and obviously intoxicated.  The woman seated beside him requested the flight attendant move her, or him.  The captain was called, spoke briefly with the offending drunk, brushed off a couple of insults and returned to the cockpit.  In short order, an announcement came over the PA system advising of a diversion.  With some difficulty, the drunk was escorted, or closer to the truth … ‘thrown off’ the plane in an airport far from his intended destination, and the flight carried on.

         Causing a disturbance while on an aircraft these days, however minor, can get a passenger in serious trouble.  This fellow was lucky that he didn’t go to jail.  The airlines take a dim view of troublemakers, and are prone to take decisive action quickly to get rid of them.  The captain has the ultimate authority on board his plane.  No one can overrule his word.  Whether it’s a politician, a policeman, a priest or even his boss, if the captain says he doesn’t fly, he is turfed off.  I witnessed the following incident at an airport that involved a member of the Canadian Prime Ministers’ staff.  The woman was bilingual with perfect English, but demanded the airline staff speak to her in French.  While still at the departure gate, she became abusive to the agents, loud, demanding and disruptive.  The captain of the plane was advised, he denied her boarding, and as the aircraft taxied away from the terminal, she was left at the gate surrounded by several policemen. 

           Not many would argue with a policy that protects the traveling public from those who would abuse alcohol and disrupt the safety of an airline flight.  But what if that person is the captain of the plane?  There have been incidents involving flight crews who are under the influence of alcohol and still attempt to fly.  These cases are definitely rare, considering the number of flights in the world on any given day.  Far from being a normal occurrence, they do however happen. 

            The cancellation of an America West Airlines flight from out of Miami in 2002 was one that was widely reported in the news media.  The captain and the first officer both ended up with long jail sentences following their trial and conviction for operating an aircraft while intoxicated.  They had been out on the town until 04:30, then showed up for their flight scheduled to depart at 10:30 in the morning.  The agents at the security screening smelled alcohol on the crewmembers, were involved in a verbal discussion with the two men, notified their superior who in turn called police.  When officers arrived at the airport, the Airbus 319 with 127 passengers on board, had pushed back from the gate.  It was ordered to return, whereupon the captain and first officer were arrested, then blew higher than legal breathalyzers. 

            I’m not aware of any studies that discuss the percentage of airline pilots who have a problem with alcohol.  Given the nature of the work and pilots’ professional attitude, it would likely be a very, very small number.  However, there are quite often news reports of cases such as the one involving that AWA crew.  They do happen and are widely condemned by the general public.  The legal profession is on board this as well.  One website on the internet is for a Chicagolaw firm advertised as “Pilot Intoxication Lawyers”. In part, the website states:  “Pilots who neglect their important duties, including those who work under the influence of drugs or alcohol, are a serious risk to everyone on the plane and in the area where it might land. If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident caused by an intoxicated pilot, call Chicago pilot intoxication attorneys” ……. then goes on to give details on how to contact them.

            Pilots who seek help will find support.  Some start by confiding in other pilots, their unions and their employers.  They can also turn to a worldwide organization called “Birds Of A Feather.”  Many ultimately are left with BOAF as their last chance.  Based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, BOAF is for pilots and cockpit crewmembers in private, military and commercial aviation.  Their concern is for recovery from alcoholism, a ‘misunderstood’ disease.  They maintain a very informative website (www.boaf.org) and have support groups in many countries.  I have been acquainted with at least one pilot who admits he salvaged his career by joining the organization.  

            To the young pilot with his dreams set on flying for the airlines, it must be difficult to imagine a senior captain throwing away his career, the pay and the pension, and committing a federal offence by operating an aircraft while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  There should be by now, enough information out there to warn us about the dangers of addictions.  The news media, our schools and various programs aimed at young, impressionable kids ought to have scared them away from it.  But apparently it’s not enough yet.  Our society still has not found the perfect, workable solution to this very real problem.  Birds Of A Feather, A.A. and other similar groups have proven track records and have helped, in fact have saved the lives of many, many people. 


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