AINsight: Is 8 Hours Enough from Bottle to Throttle?

 - April 13, 2018, 10:17 AM

Drug and alcohol testing has been in place for all safety-sensitive aviation positions since 1991. Part 121 and 135 pilots are subject to testing most commonly on a “random” basis.

For 2018, each commercial operator must test at least 25 percent of pilots for drugs and 10 percent for alcohol, selected randomly. Post-accident, reasonable cause, and return to duty (after prolonged absence) are among the other reasons that testing would be conducted.

Per FAR 91.17, a pilot may not act as a crewmember within eight hours of consuming any alcoholic beverage, with a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.04 percent or higher, or while “under the influence” of alcohol.

The first parts of the regulation are basically self-explanatory. Acting as a crewmember is usually interpreted as at the beginning of duty time, not block-out time. “Under the influence,” however, requires some thought and interpretation.

For example, is being “hung over” considered to be under the influence? Certainly, when people are hung over, performance can deteriorate. I think sensibility and basic ethics apply here.

Drinking enough alcohol to affect performance on the next duty period is a poor decision, even if the pilot is otherwise “legal” to fly. Any pilot who does so on a recurring basis needs to self-assess as to whether a drinking problem is developing. Most commercial operators have excellent resources to help a pilot who is concerned that there is a problem and wants to deal with it before potentially testing positive at work—or worse, causing an incident or accident as a result of impairment.

The limit for driving under the influence (DUI) nationally is a BAC of 0.08 percent or greater. Not surprisingly, aviation limits are more conservative. At commercial operations, they’re even stricter—any pilot with a BAC of 0.02 to 0.039 percent is immediately removed from safety-sensitive duties. The operator’s substance compliance policies will outline the procedures for a substance abuse evaluation as a result.

Regardless, a commercial pilot cannot fly until his BAC is less than 0.02 percent. However, in this circumstance it is far more likely than not that the pilot would already have been removed from all duty by the employer. That pilot will not return to duty until all company substance compliance requirements and FAA policies and protocols have been satisfied.

Things get a bit more complicated if the BAC is 0.04 percent or higher for any safety-sensitive employees, which includes pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics. This is considered a “positive” test result.

Similar to the discussion above, the employee is immediately removed from safety-sensitive functions and must undergo a formal substance abuse evaluation. The employee may not return to duty until complying with all recommendations made by the substance-abuse professional conducting the evaluation.

For pilots, however, there is the additional specter of certificate action. It is almost certain that any pilot having a positive test for drugs or alcohol will have his medical certificate revoked. (In my next blog, I’ll discuss the programs in place to return a pilot to active duty via a medical certificate granted under a special issuance authorization.)

Most on-duty positive test results further lead to revocation of all airman/pilot certificates, in addition to the medical certificate. While this is an additional stress and financial burden, revocation of all certificates is not always the end of the proverbial road.

If the medical certificate is reinstated after formal substance rehabilitation treatment and ongoing follow-up, the pilot can next begin the process of reinstatement of airman certificates. There is usually a 12-month waiting period from the date of pilot certificate revocation before reapplication.

More often than not, the pilot has already had the medical certificate reinstated in less time than that. This is a daunting process that is best avoided in the first place, of course, but any such pilot who has received substance rehabilitation has a good chance to regain entry into the cockpit.

Pilots must understand that a “refusal” to comply with a DOT test is automatically considered a “positive” test. The same goes for DUIs—refusal to test at a motor vehicle arrest will also be considered a positive test by the FAA, regardless of any separate legal actions the driver may or may not face.

A single positive test, even if there is no other evidence of a substance use disorder, is considered “substance abuse” by the FAA. Depending on where they occurred, positive tests could potentially lead to additional legal actions, such as jail time. Other countries might have their own BAC limits that are more conservative than the FAA’s—for example, the limit in the UK for a positive test is 0.02 percent BAC. Violations can result in legal action, including imprisonment in the country where the positive test occurred.

There is a permanent prohibition on performing safety-sensitive functions for confirmed on-duty use of alcohol or drugs, or after two positive DOT tests. Any pilot meeting either of these criteria will never fly commercially again.

Fortunately, most pilots will never run afoul of the regulations pertaining to drug and alcohol testing. For those who do have substance abuse issues, the good news is that the FAA has embraced their rehabilitation and eventual return to the cockpit. This rather enlightened program understands that there is a strong medical component to substance use disorders.

Dr. Sancetta is a former DC-10 captain with 11,000 flight hours. He has worked as a Senior AME since 1993 and is appointed as AME Consultant to the Federal Air Surgeon.