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Booze Crews: The Airline Industry’s Drinking Problem

The airline lifestyle is a complicated one. We spend most of our days living on the outside of our own lives, with our families and friends going about their lives without us for much of the time. It’s tough to see pictures of get-togethers and family dinners on social media as we eat cold pizza on a hotel bed. Even when we are around, we can feel forgotten about because it’s assumed we’re away flying even when we aren’t. Our way of life sets us up for stress, loneliness and sense of displacement. But we also find ourselves overnighting in exciting cities around the world with coworkers we have just met or have known for years, and being social with work friends can help restore the feeling of missing out on our own lives. Alcohol comes naturally in these settings, and this constant cycle of celebrating and coping often leads to overindulgence. And overindulgence just seems to be a way of life in this world.

Should flight attendants and pilots land themselves in trouble when alcohol use crosses from leisure time into work time, it’s fodder for huge headlines. This summer, two United pilots were pulled from the cockpit in Glasgow, Scotland and arrested after failing a breathalyzer test. In September Thomson Air flight attendant, also in Glasgow, reported to the airport to work a flight to Ibiza and was taken into custody when she was accused of being under the influence. And last week an American Airlines flight attendant was arrested in Manchester, England as she reported to work a flight bound for Chicago and alcohol was smelled on her breath while performing the safety demonstration. (It should be pointed out that, while the media has been clinging to the fact that she was found to be eight times over the legal limit, this is the limit for aviation, which is much lower than that of driving. Still quite illegal, but a lot less sensational than it sounds.) All were consequently suspended from their respective duties pending investigation. These situations are relatively infrequent but are taken very seriously. As with driving a car, no one wants to watch their coworkers attempt to work while intoxicated – least of all pilots. Any one of us would encourage a coworker or friend who might have overdone it the night before to call in sick rather than attempt to work a flight in less than ideal condition. It’s not worth the risks to one’s career or the safety of all onboard.

But while stories of drunk crew members reporting for duty are thankfully rare, it does shine a light on a larger problem in the industry; with the amount of drinking that many of us do off duty, some of us have difficulty controlling it. The industry creates many alcoholics, most of whom are functional.

Many layers exist to help prevent substance abuse issues finding their way onboard aircraft. The first is random drug and alcohol screenings, with tests also being given if use is suspected or if any kind of accident happens. Rules differ internationally, but India has the most stringent, with breathalyzer tests administered prior to every flight due to an epidemic of commercial Indian airline pilots reporting to work under the influence over the past few years. Current regulations there prohibit any trace of alcohol on pilots’ breath, whereas US regulations permit a blood-alcohol level of .04. Security officers as well as gate agents in airports worldwide are trained to maintain as much awareness of the signs of intoxication among crew as they are with passengers. If intoxication is suspected, a test would immediately be administered. The fates of employees whose tests come up positive for drugs or alcohol depends on the airline. Of course, anyone who fails a drug or alcohol test would be immediately removed from duties. Usually, if the airline has a union, the union will advocate for the employee to attend rehabilitation and to be allowed to return to flying upon completion of the program – with more frequent testing to occur afterward to ensure that everything stays on the up and up. However, many non-union carriers are zero tolerance, terminating the employee without any questions asked.

Most airline crew are very aware of when to stop drinking and are sure to observe the minimum time required by law from the time alcohol is consumed by until report time at the aircraft (also known as the “bottle to throttle” rule), which for pilots and flight attendants is 8 hours, but can be as many as 12 at some airlines. But the problems with drinking are more likely an issue in the personal lives of crews than professional ones. It’s an issue that isn’t much talked about because the behavior is so normalized. On layovers, we drink together to socialize, and we drink alone to deal with stress, boredom and loneliness. We drink to help ourselves sleep when work disrupts our body clocks, and we drink when we run into long lost friends on our travels. While social drinking is the norm in society as a whole, it is amplified in the airline industry, with binge drinking happening with regularity.

Every single pilot or flight attendant I’ve talked to about this with adamantly agrees that alcohol abuse is a silent epidemic among us. For those who struggle with drugs and alcohol in the airline industry, there are resources available. To start with, most airlines offer their employees the opportunity to attend rehabilitation programs without risking their careers – but only if they are to disclose a problem before being selected for a random drug and alcohol screening. For flight attendants, the FAA sponsors a recovery program called the Flight Attendant Drug and Alcohol Program (FADAP), which assists in maintaining sobriety in an environment where alcohol is always around. For pilots, the HIMS (Human Intervention Motivation Study) is an occupational-specific treatment program.

[Photo: Shutterstock]

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5 Comments
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Brad Lamm December 15, 2016

Great article, and FADAP is a wonderful organization helping Flight Attendants get help and return to duty. Bravo!

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Asknorm December 13, 2016

Flight... the movie

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scooternva December 13, 2016

Hear hear, let's have more original content like this. Great article!

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Asiaflyguy December 13, 2016

Great article, though while I had never thought aside from a few stories on intoxicated pilots, that it was a me widespread issue. In my 25 years of road warrior travel, I have never close to even a suspicion of a FA being intoxicated while on the job. Like the airline industry, may other professions, police, fire, medical all have similar battles with the dreaded bottle

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WillTravel4Food December 13, 2016

Compelling and original content on Flyertalk? I hope this article doesn't get lost in FlyerTalks's forest of scraped news. It'll be a shame if Amanda loses visibility. This is what I come to Flyertalk for, not scraped articles that I'd already read.