From Bottle to Throttle: risks to the aviation industry from chemical dependency

From Bottle to Throttle: risks to the aviation industry from chemical dependency

Mar 14th, 2013

Riskope thanks Evelyn Ramsey for this interesting post entitled From Bottle to Throttle: risks to the aviation industry from chemical dependency.

From Bottle to Throttle: risks to the aviation industry from chemical dependency. indeed, worldwide, the aviation industry is one of risk management, health and safety. This global industry operates in an environment of extreme caution. Notwithstanding this, there have been approximately 150 cases of intoxicated pilots which have come to light over a period of 12 years.

From Bottle to Throttle: risks to the aviation industry from chemical dependency

As recently as last month, police arrested an American Airlines pilot as he was conducting pre-flight checks, preparing to fly 53 passengers from Minneapolis St Paul International Airport to New York City La Guardia Airport. Officers had been alerted by allegations that a strong smell of alcohol was emanating from him. They required him to take a breathalyzer test, which he failed. In Minneapolis, the limit is 0.04 of breath alcohol concentration which is much stricter than the limit for road users.

Not just alcohol.

There have also been cases of drug taking by aircraft crew. In 2011, the pilots and flight attendants on Russian airline Yakutia allegedly smoked marijuana immediately prior to boarding a plane for flight. The investigation delayed the flight of 192 passengers for half a day before the airline found a new crew to take control.

It is not only alcohol and illegal drugs which create risks. Addiction to prescription drugs can also raise issues of risk for airline personnel. These, though, are much harder to detect.

Most airline companies will have their own policies on substance abuse in addition to the requirements of international regulation. These policies tend to concern the use of alcohol and other substances within a given time relative to the flight. They are known as ‘bottle to throttle’ policies. Canadian Aviation Regulations are strict.

Aviation accidents which occur as a result of drink or drugs abuse are, however, rare. In spite of the media coverage which arises when a pilot fails a breathalyzer test, professionals within the industry are very aware of the cost – both financial and human – of a disaster happening. This is down to training and rigorous policies.

Sound risk management

In the US, studies have been conducted on pilots operating under the influence of alcohol. The National Transportation Safety Board is unaware of any US airline accident involving pilots under the influence and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) conducts some 10,000 to 11,000 random alcohol tests annually. That would cover approximately ten percent of all US airline pilots. Putting it into perspective, each year, only a handful of pilots exceed the alcohol limit compared with 1.5 million drivers. They face dire consequences.

Three levels of aviation drug and alcohol policy exist:

  • international
  • national
  • airline.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) determines common international requirements. This covers a wide range of issues and includes the requirement that aircraft maintenance personnel, air traffic controllers and flight crew have no established history of alcohol or drugs abuse. The Canadian Transportation Agency is the overarching body in Canada.

Substance abuse policy

It is clear that it is important for all companies to have a substance abuse policy. Not only to protect the position of the employer but also to support the employee. What is also clear is that most airlines will have developed policies based on, among other things:

  • their legal responsibilities
  • expressing commitment to health and safety
  • raising awareness  among staff of the commercial imperatives
  • making the position of staff who do abuse substances clear.

In any risk management scenario, there is also a place for remedial action. Within the aviation industry there is a growing movement to support pilots and flight attendants who have developed a substance dependency problem.  The US-based Aviation Family Fund is an organisation set up for aviation families affected by chemical dependency. There are other agencies which are specifically committed to treating those with a dependency on prescription drugs. Support of this nature is down to location and individual airline. However, over the past ten years the US has developed a scheme where a pilot with a substance abuse problem can come forward without fear of job loss. This may be a breakthrough step in managing risk and is certainly worthy of further study.

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Category: Hazard, Probabilities, Risk analysis, Risk management

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