United Airlines Pilots Banned From Alcohol For 12 Hours Before Flying

Following the arrest in Glasgow, Scotland, of two of its pilots, United Airlines has laid down its own, revised bottle to throttle rule that divorces the drinking of alcohol from flying a plane. As we explore this matter, let’s consider what change United has made; we will also look at how common it is to find pilots under the influence of alcohol and explore why it might be such a problem. Finally, what do passengers think about pilots who fly with alcohol in their systems?

United Airlines
United Airlines has adjusted alcohol rules for pilots. Photo: Colin Brown Photography via Flickr.

What happened in Glasgow?

Skift, a travel industry media company, was the first to report the arrest of two of United’s pilots who were suspected of flouting the no-alcohol rule. That incident took place on August 3rd, 2019 as they prepared for their flight to Newark, New Jersey.

United Airlines has made no comment on the possible link between the arrest of the two pilots and the introduction of their new 12-hour rule: that is, no alcohol within 12 of hours taking control of a plane. Moreover, United’s rule is now stricter than the Federal Aviation Authority’s (FAA) eight-hour rule. Additionally, whilst the FAA rule sets the limit at 0.04 percent blood alcohol limit, the United Kingdom’s own limit is 0.02 percent and Glasgow is, of course, part of the United Kingdom.


FAA Seal
United’s rules are now stricter than the FAAs: Photo: FAA

Is this a serious problem?

The New England Journal of Medicine published a report in which the authors, Jack G. Modell, M.D., and James M. Mountz, M.D., Ph.D., said that, at the time of their research, there were 700,000 general aviation pilots in the USA. They cited an article which said,

35.4 per cent of the general aviation pilots involved in fatal aircraft accidents in 1963 had measurable levels of alcohol in their blood at the time of the crash”.

The authors went on to say that there was no data at that time on the incidence of alcohol abuse among commercial pilots but that it was felt to be the same as for general aviation.

As if confirmation of the need for the FAA measures, Modell and Mount also reported findings that suggest that 16 percent of commercial pilots not only admit to drinking heavily but also overestimate the number of drinks needed to be classified as intoxicated.

How common is this problem?

Thankfully, there are not that many cases of intoxicated pilots flying us from A to B, but they do exist, as we have just seen. The BBC has reported on the case of two more United pilots who were arrested, again at Glasgow, for alcohol abuse. In this case, the pilot and co-pilot were imprisoned for 15 and 10 months, respectively: they were dismissed by their employer and lost their licenses to fly, too. Clearly, this is a serious matter, for them as well as for their passengers.

American Airlines
American Airlines also had an issue with over-the-limit pilots. Photo: Wikipedia

The New York Times reports that in May, an American Airlines pilot received a suspended six-month sentence: guilty of drinking before a Manchester to Philadelphia flight. In July, a Delta pilot was arrested before a flight in Minneapolis. Moreover, it’s not only pilots who can fall foul of the bottle to throttle rule.

We recently reported that on August 2nd, a flight attendant was arrested after a United Express flight landed in Indiana, having been adjudged drunk by her passengers. Delta too has had an incident where a pilot was suspected of alcohol abuse.

What do passengers think of all of this?

Following the arrest, again in Glasgow, Scotland, of two Air Transat pilots, passengers spoke to CBC News. “I was shocked,” said Fahra Murad, “I had no idea this was the cause,” Caroline Woodgett said, ”That’s disgusting! I hope they throw them in jail and throw away the key. There’s no words to describe what could have happened.”

Random blood tests should help to alleviate this problem, as Singapore Airlines demonstrated in September 2018. Some of the passengers in that were scathing in their condemnation of the pilot and one passenger even suggested that random breath tests can never be a substitute for total breath tests for all aircrew, every flight.

United Airlines B787-8 Dreamliner
United Airlines B787-8 Dreamliner Photo From San Francisco Landing at Osaka lasta29 via Flickr

What do you think about the stricter rules at United Airlines? Should other carriers follow suit? Let us know in the comments.