I have virtually zero doubt that the two United pilots arrested for “intoxication” at Glasgow International Airport on Saturday could have flown safely across the Atlantic. But that’s not the point.
Pilots are held to a higher standard. The blood alcohol concentration(BAC) limit for pilots is much stricter than for United Kingdom motorists; twice as strict according to the BBC. That’s why pilots are instructed not to drink less than eight hours before their next duty assignment.
We don’t know the circumstances of their arrest. We don’t know why they were targeted for inspection. Nor do we know what their BAC was. But we do know they were arrested, which prompted a cancelled flight.
Police Scotland can confirm that two men, aged 61 and 45, have been arrested and remain in police custody pending a scheduled court appearance on Tuesday 6 August for alleged offenses under the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003 (Section 93).
We also know United re-affirmed its “no tolerance” policy when it comes to alcohol:
The safety of our customers and crew is always our top priority. We hold all of our employees to the highest standards and have a strict, no tolerance policy for alcohol.
These pilots were immediately removed from service and we are fully cooperating with local authorities. At this time, we are working to get our customers back on their journey as soon as possible.
So what then? Why such a strict limit? Is it reasonable?
These BAC restrictions are to protect against the lowest common denominator, not those who can hold their liquor well. Some have an amazing ability to drink and drink without feeling the effects of it. Perhaps that was the case with these pilots. In fact, I’m willing to speculate that it was…I’ve flown over 1.5 million miles on United and find the pilots to be incredibly with professional (with one exception, not coincidentally out of Newark).
But that’s not the point…
Remember our recent discussion on bright line rules in the context of emotional support animals? Strict rules are not the ideal answer if the point is to gauge whether a pilot is truly intoxicated. However strict rules are really the only viable avenue. There is simply no other way, without huge cost and time expenditures, to determine if a pilot is fit to fly.
And when pilots disregard these limits, strict as they are, they violate the trust of their employer, co-workers, and passengers.
Think about the ripple effects of the cancelled flight from Glasgow to Newark. EU261/2004 compensation of 600EUR for every passenger. Missed connections. Hotel and meal vouchers. A new crew brought in from Newark. One Newark to Glasgow passenger was involuntarily bumped from his business class seat to make room for a deadheading pilot. What great optics…
We put our lives in the hands of our flight deck crew. Being a pilot is a difficult job, but a high-paying job for those who fly mainline. With that comes great responsibility. It is absolutely unreasonable for pilots to drink before they fly, even if it does not technically impact their performance in the slightest. Because that is not what the law and their contract specifies. It’s about BAC, not performance. And just because some can tolerate liquor, does not mean everyone else can. Strict rules are intended to keep more vulnerable pilots from struggling.
Whatever the outcome here, I hope that United will send the bill for every last penny to the two pilots who showed up to work legally intoxicated.