Every so often there’s a story in the news about pilots being arrested for showing up to work above the legal drinking limit. I think it’s important to draw a distinction here — often stories about these incidents refer to the pilots as “drunk,” though that’s typically not the case.
There are very strict limits as to how much alcohol pilots can have in their system when they show up for work, and in most countries those limits are way lower than the limits for driving.
United Airlines’ recent Glasgow incident
A bit over a week ago United was in the news when both pilots operating a flight from Glasgow to Newark showed up to work above the legal limit. The pilots ended up being arrested, and the flight was canceled.
Well, following this latest incident (which is far from the first such incident at United, or any US airline, for that matter), United is adding some new rules for pilots.
New rules for United Airlines pilots
United Airlines pilots now have to stop drinking at least 12 hours before they’re due to report for duty. Previously the policy was that they had to stop drinking eight hours before they were due to report for duty.
This is often informally referred to as “bottle to throttle” time, so it’s now “12 hours bottle to throttle” rather than “eight hours bottle to throttle.”
As before, pilots in the US can have a maximum blood alcohol level of 0.04. At least that’s the FAA mandated blood alcohol level, though when flying to other countries they might be subjected to more stringent rules. For example, in the UK the maximum is 0.02, so pilots flying from there are subjected to those more stringent rules.
In the Glasgow incident it could be that the pilots were below the legal limit for the US, but not below the legal limit for the UK.
As United explains in a bulletin to pilots:
“This policy is being changed to help assure pilot compliance with standards established by the United States and individual states where United operates around the world.”
As of now, all of United’s major US competitors only require pilots to wait eight hours rather than 12 hours, though it’ll be interesting to see if they follow United’s lead.
Ultimately this seems like a sensible rule change, and on a global perspective the US does have some of the more lax rules in terms of the blood alcohol level that pilots are allowed to have.
What’s interesting is that the amount of time between drinking and flying isn’t easily enforceable, unless a pilot admits to it, or is reported by someone else.
Also, I understand an arbitrary line has to be drawn somewhere, but I’m not sure the cutoff is actually that significant? For example, would you rather a pilot have a single beer 10 hours before departure, or get completely hammered 12 hours before departure?
Hopefully pilots are able to exercise good judgment, though like every other portion of the population, some pilots have struggles in life, and many resort to alcohol.
In many cases this rule change means that pilots won’t be allowed to drink at all on some layovers. United pilots consistently have layovers of over eight hours, though in some cases may have layovers of under 12 hours. So in those cases pilots wouldn’t be allowed to drink at all.
What do you make of this rule change on United’s part?