Trouble Brews for Yank Pilots Across Pond
11/12/09 - 08:53 AM EST
LONDON (TheStreet) -- U.S. pilots need to think twice about kicking back a few beers -- make that even one -- in jolly old England.
"Did you know that the aviation blood alcohol limits in Great Britain are one half of what the limits are in the US?" the U.S. Airline Pilots Association asked last month, in an email to its 5,200 members.
While the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits flying by a pilot whose blood alcohol concentration is at or above 0.04, the standard in Great Britain is roughly half that.
USAPA, which represents pilots at US Airways(LCC Quote), warned members to "use extreme caution" when overnighting in England, because the country has tougher aviation blood alcohol limits than the U.S. does.
A United(UAUA Quote) pilot learned about this difference first hand when he was arrested at London's Heathrow International Airport Monday after failing a breath test.
The pilot, Erwin Vermont Washington, 51, was arrested after a United employee reported him to the authorities, a spokeswoman for BAA Airports Ltd., Heathrow's operator, told The Associated Press. It was not immediately clear how much alcohol he had consumed.
Specifically, British law prohibits pilots from having more than 20 micrograms of alcohol for each 100 milliliters of blood in their system, or .02%. For an average-sized man, that is equivalent to about a half glass of beer.
A similar incident involving a pilot for American(AMR Quote) occurred in May. The pilot, Capt. Joseph Crites, 57, arrived for his flight aboard a Boeing 777 with alcohol on his breath as he was about to fly to Chicago. His blood-alcohol level was found to be twice the legal limit, and he was arrested.
In an October court hearing, the pilot said that he had had a few drinks with dinner the night before reporting for duty, according to The London Daily Mail. His lawyer told the court: "He did have some drinks, but the only thing he can suggest to explain this is that he had some unfamiliar beers, which were stronger than those he was used to." The pilot was fined and lost his job.
It was the American incident that prompted USAPA to warn its members about the law in Great Britain. USAPA's email also included these points: "British security screeners are not only trained but are required to report any suspicious behavior. You can be prosecuted for violating British law. Convictions can result in heavy fines and/or prison time. Failure to submit to a breathalyzer test will result in your immediate arrest. Think before you drink."
In the United case, passengers had boarded Chicago-bound United Flight 949, a Boeing 767 that was preparing for departure when the arrest was made.
"Safety is our highest priority and the pilot has been removed from service while we are cooperating with authorities and conducting a full investigation," the airline said in a statement. "United's alcohol policy is among the strictest in the industry and we have no tolerance for violation of this well-established policy."
A spokesman for the United chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association declined to comment.
Last month, two Northwest pilots, Capt. Timothy B. Cheney, 53, and First Officer Richard I. Cole, 54, overflew the Minneapolis airport in an Airbus A320. The National Transportation Safety Board said the two had lost track of time because they were using personal laptop reporters while discussing a new crew flight-scheduling system.
In that case, Lee Moak, chairman of the ALPA chapter at Delta(DAL Quote), went to bat for the pilots, defending their right to due process. Moak said the NTSB had committed a breach of trust by prematurely releasing self-disclosed information.
Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, says the series of incidents involving pilots is not random. "We have begun a long slide in terms of professionalism in the industry," he said. "This industry and its workers have been pushed to the limits, and I think they are a little ragged at the edges.
"You have an industry of professional pilots whose pay had been cut, their work hours extended and their pensions slashed in many cases," he said. "They are demoralized. They tell their kids not to come into the profession."
Mitchell said he will propose a solution Thursday when he appears on a panel at a U.S. Transportation Department forum on the state of the industry. "We have to put together a coherent national air travel policy instead of the patchwork we have now, overseen by Congress, the FAA and others," he said. "If we had a national transportation policy, the red flags would come up before there are incidents.
-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C. .