United Airlines Cracks Down On Drinking Pilots

Filed Under: United

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.

Bottom line

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?

(Tip of the hat to Brian Sumers)

  1. Any alcohol content in the blood constitutes impairment. That is the reason why some countries have zero tolerance for driving under the influence. There should be zero tolerance for pilots. The 12 rule doesn’t make sense.

  2. I think the time limits are completely inconsequential. In fact, they likely contribute to bad behavior. It helps someone rationalize their abuse. “Oh, I can have 10 drinks the night before a flight as long as I stop by 8 pm for an 8 am show.” So now they show up hungover and likely not fit for duty, but according to the rules, they are ok.

    Like you say you are going to get people who abuse alcohol in all walks of life. About the only thing, we’ve come up with that kind of draws an equitable line is BAC. I say kind of because people have shown that they can perform at different levels at a particular BAC based on other factors.

  3. “Any alcohol content in the blood constitutes impairment. That is the reason why some countries have zero tolerance for driving under the influence. There should be zero tolerance for pilots. The 12 rule doesn’t make sense.”

    THIS!!! The expectation should be that a pilot be completely sober at the time of flying. Time since last drink means nothing when you can’t take into consideration the weight, gender, number of drinks consumed and starting BAC at the point of consumption. Ridiculous policies. Pilots should be sober. It’s your job and duty to the public.

  4. Requiring 0.0% may not be appropriate because of limitations of the tests and our ability to produce or have our foods produce trace amounts of alcohol…….

  5. Why aren’t pilots just breathalised before starting duty. Seems like it would be very cheap and improve safety as well as acting a significantly better deterrent.

  6. The only way this makes any sense would be if there are a large number of layovers between 8 and 12 hours where the policy will now be “no drinking at all.” Obviously don’t know the details of their scheduling.

  7. 12 hours is the requirement at the regional carrier I work for and is the norm for regionals in the US. It does mean that we often can’t have a drink on overnights due to the length of our layover, but for most of us I don’t think it matters because if you only have 10 hours all you really want to do is eat and go to bed. I believe at least one major carrier already has a 12 hour limit, and some airlines also don’t allow pilots to drink on the calendar day of a flight even if it’s more than 12 hours out i.e. if you get in late but the next day’s departure is in the evening you’d have to stop drinking at midnight. So this is really United moving in the direction that all the carriers seem to be going. Likely inconsequential in the long run as the pilots who are running afoul of these rules are pretty obviously dealing with some form of alcoholism which is affecting their ability to control their drinking.

  8. It should be noted that the 12 (or 8) hour rule is only one component of the FAA’s alcohol policy. In addition to the minimum time requirement, the US also has two other standards, all of which must be adhered to. The second limitation is that BAC must be below .04, while the third is a general catch-all requirement that the pilot not be under the influence, which can include being hung over.

  9. Requiring a 0.0% blood alcohol would also likely mean that a pilot couldn’t use standard mouthwash before a morning flight because of breathalyzer false positive concerns.

    Think think of a poor pilot’s proper dental health, y’all.

  10. I suggest that the hard measurable limit is the BAC percentage.

    The 12-hour rule is more of an ancillary rule to help pilots meet that BAC percentage.
    If you drink a bottle of spirits finishing 12 hours beforehand then no you will not pass.
    But for an 8am departure, most people are OK drinking half a bottle of wine so long as they finish it by 8pm.
    It also encourages sleeping for 8-10 hours rather than only 6 hours.
    As it’s a specific written rule it can also lead to peer pressure, reportings, and disciplinary warnings, but criminal prosecution is only for the BAC percentage.

  11. I was told by an United employee pilots get a second chance but all the others (gate agents FAs etc) are dismisses after the first violation.

    Obviously everyone is important in terms of safety but I’d think the pilot would be most critical

  12. As a former flight attendant at legacy United the rule was always 12 hours for pilots and flight attendants. Continental management chamged the rule after the merger. As far as any rule. Any individual has to use some common sense. If flew with a coworker who had to check in at 0700 the next day. Starting at 1100 he drank 8 Guinness and 8 Bushmills. He stopped drinking at 1600 he still blew a
    08 it just depends.

  13. Sounds perfectly sensible. I don’t drink for a week when I’m on call and have zero issue with it, I don’t see why pilots should need to drink everytime they have a layover somewhere!

  14. The reason why australia/Uk/etc have a BAC of 0.02 is because you can’t guarantee any lower that it wasn’t just food/ mouthwash (as other commenters have said). What should be done is change the BAC requirement to this. 0.02 is pretty much just a sip or so and would definitely cover it off

  15. Has there been a history of commercial pilots having having accidents, near misses, wing clips on the ground, etc., failing a breathalyzer or blood test? They must be tested after every little incident…or not?

  16. In the 1970s, this was posted everywhere at Gibbs’ Flying Service in San Diego, California. “24 hours between the bottle and the throttle.” 8 hours? 12 hours? What happened to the 50 year-old adage where it was 24 hours? Did pilots got sloppy in their professionalism?

  17. I think a lot of people is overreacting. This is the result of social Medio paranioa.
    This incsidents still represent less than one percent of the pilots. There is not need to punish every single pilots based on this rare incidents.
    This is the same outcome of terrorist. Because one incident… Now we can’t bring liquids. Another incident… No powders.. Another incident… Shoes. It is stupid.

  18. How about 24hrs….so anything residual has fully cleared the body….I prefer my pilots stone cold sober!

  19. United management cannot impose this change unilaterally; the pilot union (ALPA in this case) will have to give its consent before pilots are bound by it. What sayeth the union?

  20. I think 12 hours is sensible – it is a time limit established to help pilots manage BAC. You cannot realistically limit BAC to below 0.02 for all the (alcohol in other things than drinks) factors others have already mentioned.

  21. The spirit of the rules is to not have a drink when sober within 12 hours duty. Obviously being hammered at T-12 will mean blowing over the limit at report, the idea is to ensure that the crew are sober. I’m very surprised to hear that they have many layovers of 8 hours, that is a very short time indeed for a legacy carrier.

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