United Flight Canceled Because Both Pilots Drank Too Much

Filed Under: United

Update: United Airlines has added new restrictions on pilots drinking.

Fairly often we hear stories of pilots arrested at the airport for having had too much to drink. While that’s of course irresponsible, I understand why this happens with some frequency:

  • The alcohol limit for pilots is consistently much lower than the limit to drive
  • Jet lag can be tough, and for some can lead to depression, drinking heavily, etc; pilots are also only human

The good news is that typically when we hear stores like this, it’s only one pilot who has had too much to drink, and they end up being reported.

Well, today’s United flight from Glasgow to Newark was canceled because both pilots had too much to drink. As United describes it on their website, the flight was “canceled because of a crew scheduling disruption out of Glasgow.”

A police spokesperson explains:

“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 offences under the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003 (Section 93).”

Meanwhile a United spokesperson said the following:

“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.”

Now, a couple of things to note. First of all, I wouldn’t (necessarily) say the pilots here were “drunk.” While in the US you can typically drive with a blood alcohol level of up to 0.08, pilots are subjected to stricter limits, and in this point I believe the limit was somewhere around 0.02 to 0.04 (I believe the limit for US pilots is 0.04, but in the UK it’s 0.02 — someone correct me if I’m wrong).

In other words even the equivalent of about one drink in your system is over the limit, and can get you arrested.

So the pilots were definitely irresponsible, but they weren’t necessarily stumbling through the airport.

Now, it is possible that they were actually super drunk. Generally speaking when pilots are caught above the alcohol limit it’s for a reason — either because someone smells it on a pilot’s breath, because of how they’re acting, etc. It could also be that they were reported by colleagues who saw them out and drinking late the previous night.

Given that both pilots were above the limit, it sounds to me like they may have had a late Friday night at the pub, had a few beers, and it was still in their system in the morning.

Lastly, thanks to EU261 regulations, every passenger on this flight is entitled to 600EUR compensation for the delay. That’s a nice chunk and change, and costly for the airline.

  1. In the UK pilots and cabin crew are not allowed to consume ANY alcohol within eight hours of a duty and a ‘reasonable’ amount in the twelve hours before that.

  2. I think you give pilots who arrive to fly with alcohol in their system too much empathy. There are a number of countries that have zero tolerance laws against driving with alcohol in your system. Additionally, DUI offenders that have ignition interlock must blow 0.00 in some jurisdictions to be able to start and operate their cars, not 0.08 or 0.05. What I am trying to say is that it is fully expected that some people in some situations operate vehicles completely alcohol free. It’s not a ridiculous concept. It’s reasonable to expect someone operating a plane as a part of a professional occupation to be a part of that expectation.

  3. @Andre

    While I agree with you that pilots shouldn’t drink ANY alcohol before a flight, a .00 Limit wouldn’t work as the body can produce very small amounts of alcohol itself, for example after eating an apple. You can’t forbid anyone to eat an apple or ruin a pilots career just because he ate an apple and has tiny amounts of alcohol in his system.

  4. It would have been better if the pie was just called in sick. It would’ve been better than getting caught at the airport over the legal limit.

  5. I’m always a bit shocked when I hear of pilots getting arrested, even for a scant Blood Alcohol Level that, for most of us, wouldn’t even hit the radar screen of being noticed. If my career and professional license were hanging in the balance, I would never consume anything resembling alcohol during a period of 48 hours before the start of a trip or especially on a layover of less than 24 hours.

  6. I know a flight attendant who did a DFW-UK and was jet lagged she just drank until 5am UK time for an 11am departure out of UK.

    When she told me I thought it was fine since the cabin crew being tipsy might be fun.

  7. @ Abe
    till there is an inflight emergency then see how much fun you can have (roll eyes)

  8. The Blood Alcohol Limit allowed for pilots in the United States is several times higher than the limit for ordinary people to drive an automobile in Brazil. The issue is not only that alcohol impairs performance, but that any pilot who is reckless enough to get anywhere near the limit is probably not responsible enough to be piloting a plane full of passengers.

  9. On United app saying “crew scheduling disruption” damn, I was hoping to see, “we got two drunk pilots!”

  10. @Mak Why are you assuming that Brazil has the appropriate blood alcohol limit for operating vehicles? The corrupt traffic police may like to extort bribes from drivers after a single beer, but what does it have to do with road safety?

  11. I assume, that after the pilots Union Reps get involved, that both of them will be promoted and assigned better routes in the future.

  12. Good luck having United pay the EU261 regulatory compensation without escalation. When we had a flight cancelled out of Lisbon due to pilot illness they said it was outside of their control. After citing to United EU rulings that say ill pilots should be anticipated as employees can and do get ill – and still being denied payment – we escalated to the Portuguese transportation folks. Their inquiry finally caused United to do the right thing – but only for us “the squeaky, persistent wheel!”.

  13. This is totally ridiculous ! You will get more inneficient if you take a pane killer, like Dol-u-ron Forte, that conteins 1gr. of paracetamol and 0,65 mg of Codeine….

  14. The limit for U.S. Pilots is found in 14 CFR, part 91.17. No one may serve as a required crewmember after having so much as touched a bottle of alcohol in the last 8 hours, or having a BAC above 0.04

  15. As I understand it from another website, United waited an hour after determining the pilots’ blood alcohol level was over the legal limit to tell passengers the flight had been cancelled. In that one hour window, many of the passengers could have made additional arrangements!

  16. Donna – You may think that now, but who knows what’s going to happen in 10/20/30 years? I can assure you that the vast majority of alcoholics etc don’t plan on becoming alcoholics!

  17. @Chris:

    Legitimate question: At what BAC would a 5’10”, 175-pound male be at after consuming an apple? At 8 hours? at 6 hours? At 2 hours after consuming? Is it comparable to an alcoholic drink? Would it cause them to blow above 0.01?

  18. .04 is the rule. But if you test .03-.04 you may be suspended because FARs require you to not drink for 8 hours. I’m betting anyone who tests .04 has broken that rule. Either way these guys are morons. Poor writing saying pilot are human and subject to jet lag and therefore more susceptible to drinking. Lucky. Where do you come up with this stuff. I’m a pilot , I don’t drink. Jet lag makes me want to drink even less. There 0.00 excuse for having more than 0.02 BAC.

  19. @ Chris – I hear what you’re saying. Even using lysterine can produce BACs above 0.02 for a short period of time. I guess I’d prefer that zero tolerance be what is communicated and expected. Certainly the rules would have to allow for environmental factors.

  20. Ben, your analysis here is totally off the mark. There’s no way that any self respecting pilot would risk their whole careers on a few crappy beers in Scotland. It’s obvious they had some great scotch at the pub instead.

  21. @mak You are mistaken. The legal limit for pilots and flight attendants on U.S. based crews is .004, which is what you have after eating an apple (those brown spots are alcohol) or a slice of sourdough bread (the sour is all alcohol), or sushi (the sour rice is from alcohol), or savoring chocolate instead of swallowing it (all sugar alcohols are reduced to ethanol by saliva).

    It doesn’t justify extreme drunkeness of course, but unless one expects pilot and flight crews to abstain from eating for 24 hours before a flight there will ALWAYS be alcohol detection.

  22. They are “only human” while being paid (and trusted) like “super-humans”. There is a choice to be made here.

  23. Dude, Patrick Swayze would have flown that 752 to EWR solo. No problem. Drinking a case of beer AND a bottle of wine while smoking three packs of cigarettes on the way. Also, you gotta remember he was pretty rad to that fighter pilot that the Russians shot down in Red Dawn.

    In summation, commercial pilots should have to get their Part Patrick Swayze in addition to their Part 61/141.

  24. Every company has different rules. My company, for example, mandates no drinking within 12 hours of duty and requires a BAC of less than 0.005 when reporting. So technically speaking, if I show up to work with a 0.006 BAC I have violated a federally approved duty fitness program. We all know that this amount is nowhere near impairment, but it is still technically against our rules so….. I COULD BE ARRESTED. We don’t know the specifics of this crews circumstances.

    Maybe it was alcoholic mouthwash that did them in. Maybe it was them getting blitzed till 3 hours before show. We don’t know!

    Thank you author for being understanding and not rushing to judgement. Let’s let the investigators do their thing here.

  25. I bet they had too much “Scotch” in Scotland.Anyway pilots & Adult passengers should all be tested pior on all flights to boarding.
    I wonder on how many flights these 2 United Airlines pilots went undetected for i cannot believe it is the 1st time they drink alcohol above the authorized limit.
    I also wonder if they will be suspended for good or not.

  26. FAR mandates min. 8 hours bottle to throttle, but that’s a separate concern from BAC at time of duty.

    For an average male, each measure of alcohol results in a 0.02% rise of blood alcohol concentration. For the average male, the half-life of alcohol is 0.01% per hour. That means four standard beers in one hour yields 0.07% BAC, which would require a four hour window to put Capt. Average at 0.03%

  27. This is one of the best written articles I have read in years! I have lost touch with believing reporters because they either only tell one side of the story so they can convince to to believe what they desire or they completely make up news because there is no news to report. Ben has not only done his research but he is open minded and not coming to conclusions for the reader. He is telling both sides and letting you decide. Bravo Ben! Keep up the good work.

  28. B HOLD is another joy of Newark where (mainly intl) planes come into the B terminal but don’t have a gate assigned yet.

  29. denzel washington could have flown that plane, as he did in the movie, with or without john goodman’s help, hehehehe

    on a serious note, i do not want to be in the plane with anyone driving it– flying it that has been drinking, alcohol impairs the senses and hurts the motor skills of people.

  30. I wonder what caused THREE United Airlines flight cancellation from BUF to Newark on July 31, 2019?! Sadly passengers in the United States won’t get compensations as in EU

  31. I took this exact same flight from Glasgow to Newark on July 17th, 2019. I was dismayed to see my United Airlines pilot at the Airport Duty Free Shop whiskey section asking questions about what they were selling. One would have thought they’d have company or airport rules against that. I have a text to my wife sent from the airport showing my surprise at what I’d just seen. There’s an appropriate time for booze window shopping by airline staff…and that wasn’t it.

  32. I took this exact same flight from Glasgow to Newark on July 17th, 2019. I was dismayed to see my United Airlines pilot at the Airport Duty Free Shop whiskey section asking questions about what they were selling. One would have thought they’d have company or airport rules against that. I have a text to my wife sent from the airport showing my surprise at what I’d just seen. There’s an appropriate time for booze window shopping by airline staff…and that wasn’t it.

  33. In the US, pilots can fly if thier BAC is under .02. If there BAC is between .02 and .039, they are removed from duty untill the are under the .02 limit. If they are .04 or above, there are serious reporcussions. All of this is covered by Federal Law

  34. Not only is there a ‘bottle to throttle’
    BAC rule, there is now a specific rest requirement rule per the FAA before a scheduled duty departure.

  35. During my flight training, it was 24 hours from bottle to throttle, nothing less, ho exceptions!

  36. Surprised anyone work that hard to get his/her professional license can throw it away so cavalierly by having a drink or two (or perhaps more). I know if my hard earn professional license is on the line, last thing I would do is jeopardize it by even having a sip of alcohol when I’m about to pilot a plane full of people in 6/8 hours time. It’s call drink on your days off. How difficult is that? Sheesh!

  37. This is the 2nd time United pilots have been arrested at Glasgow airport for being over the limit. 3 years ago the flight crew were arrested, convicted and sentenced to 25 months combined for being over the drink-fly limit

  38. Again, another article at which i must shake my head. And another thread to which i am sure my rebuttal will not be posted
    1) because alchohol limits vary in each country flown, specific rules/addendums to company policies exist per destination ( typically EU AND UK reducing consumption from 8hrs to 10 or 12). Each persons body filters alchohol differently, but rule of thumb is typically 1oz per hour. Depending upon body composition, diet, activity level, metabolism, liver function, age and sex… that number can raise or lower per the individual.
    4 drinks 10 hrs ago, at a pace of 1/hr, for an out of shape, 61 y/o male, reatively sedentary in the last 24 hrs, of higher body fat percentage will test much differently than the same identical quantity in someone younger, more active, more fit and better rested drinking at a pace of 4/hr.
    So consumption against time is not the best way to to set or measure limitations, often exacerbated by the effects cabin pressurization has on the blood and how it all varies per individual.
    2) Because the EU is aware how stereotypically party hardy aviation crews are, regardless of flag. Random breath tests occur OUT OF VIEW for pilots and cabin crew. So, no, noone necessarily reported, observed or tattled about anything out of the ordinary. No one necessarily drank “too much” or beyond the “time limit”.
    3) the same random breath testing occurs in the US.
    3.1) Amsterdam specifically, also subjects crews to selective substance testing above and beyond “random” targeting thc and psilocin
    3.2) South America, india and other generic drug havens, also subjects crew to additional testing for medications not prescribed or legal for aviation professionals to use.
    4) because passengers are relatively clueless, as of late, small crew duty free shops are again being placed out of customer view, items are delivered to the plane in sealed bags, of course subject to inspection upon arrival. Additionally,if the airplane is catered full of complimentary booze, perhaps pilots shouldn’t be allowed to fly those either.
    Ya’ll kill me…
    The next time you have a night cap 9 hrs before you head to work, because the zquil you took 14 hrs ago never kicked in. You awake feeling refreshed but with allergy sniffles. You decide to pop an allegra and for lunch swallow a chantix because you’re again craving that deadly addictive Marlboro Red habit you picked up to cope with that death in the family, that becane impossible to bear after the insurance
    stopped covering the mild antidepressant, which also forced you to switch to a different medication for your HBP.
    All these human actions, that still sent you through your day perfectly “fine and functioning safely”, are all illegal for pilots.

    !!Let them drink in peace!! Just within more appropriate and less approximated
    generic restrictions that don’t spark fear in laypersons.

  39. Pilots and other professionals such as surgeons must stay completely off the booze prior to a day’s work,that’s all.
    United Airlines must be stricter with implementing this rule of Zero Alcohol Policy for according to this BBC report
    at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-49222120 some similar behavior by pilots from United Airlines already happened at Glasgow Airport, on 27th August 2016.

  40. I would think that drinking and driving should apply also for flying as well.To me it shows irresponsibility! and doesn’t say much for the Pilots .We have to remember we put our trust in the pilot who is flying the plane.How would they like their family to fly ? Safe? or with some irresponsible drunken Pilot?

  41. @Aj D Really? Functioning safely? Even if someone in an office has a glass of wine (or 2) with lunch he/she can definitely operate a PC safely, but guess what happens when they drive home. When a pilot needs to be able to make instant decisions that directly affect the wellbeing of his/hers passengers we need them to be able to do that in the least amount of time possible. When in an emergency, even 2 secs save lives. The 8 hr rule is not a foolish approximation. It is a well defined metric that works for most humans. A good rule to live by especially when you are a pilot; or a parent driving your family home after a long weekend. Let’s not oversimplify behaviours just because it fits our easy going narrative.

  42. @Andre

    “I guess I’d prefer that zero tolerance be what is communicated and expected. Certainly the rules would have to allow for environmental factors.”

    You do understand that “allow for environmental factors” is the literal opposite of “zero tolerance,” right?

  43. Learn to dance drunk, you dance better drunk. Learn to play billiards drunk, you play billiards better drunk. Learn to fly drunk….
    State Dependent Learning.

  44. I was on this flight. It was scheduled for a 9am departure – around 8:30am they told us boarding would be starting in the next 10 minutes. We then didn’t get another update until 9:30am that there was a delay due to “crew availability” and they would update us shortly. They continued that same message until just before 11am when they finally announced it was canceled. That was the really annoying part as someone else pointed out. I have seen in the news the pilots were tested around 7:30am so its even more aggravating it took them until 11am to cancel the flight. It was the only United flight at that airport so its pretty clear there wouldn’t be a lot of extra crew available to jump in for a replacement.

  45. I learned in flight school the limits are: No smoking within 8 hours of a flight and no drinking within 400 feet of an aircraft.

  46. Wow, I am impressed with some of the stupidity presented here. Sugar alcohols, such as found in apples, are NOTHING like ethanol. You can’t get drunk eating apples and you won’t fail a breath test, either. Not from apples, sushi, sourdough bread or chocolate.

    A pilot who fails a breath test 8 hours after his last drink had one hell of a night before and knew he shouldn’t be flying. That’s why there’s a time-based rule: it ensures that every pilot will be below the limit regardless of whether he or she is a “lightweight”. There are variations in alcohol processing between different individuals but not enough that 8 hours wouldn’t be sufficient unless a pilot went on a serious binge. Pilots know this rule well.

  47. “Caroline says:
    August 4, 2019 at 3:48 am
    I bet they had too much “Scotch” in Scotland.Anyway pilots & Adult passengers should all be tested pior on all flights to boarding.”

    This is as silly as it can get !!! Why not the cleaning people, those who refill the fuel, the guys in the control towers or even the check-in staff ???

    Give us a break !!!

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