One out of 1,300 Pilots Failed Random Breathalyzer Tests

According to the Financial Express, 224 pilots and crew members failed random breathalyzer tests in India in 2016 (on the rise from 2015).

This article led me to look up the general statistic.  And while it is less than 1%, it still means that 1 out of about every 1,300 pilots failed the test.

From Quartz Media:

But pilots aren’t required to take a breathalyzer test before boarding their assigned plane each time. Instead, pilots are tested randomly or if there is reasonable suspicion. Of 13,149 tests on pilots for alcohol intoxication on commercial pilots in 2015, most of them random, only 10 failed, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.


Quartz Media’s headline is pretty sensationalistic: “Don’t worry, only around one out of every 1,300 pilots is trying to fly drunk.”

The stat is pretty worrying, but it isn’t quite as bad as the article initially makes it out to be.  (Note: This is not me stating at all that it is okay to fly impaired–the article just suggests something even worse).

The statistic they cited comes from a test on 13,149 pilots, which is a large sample size.  However, the sample who actually turned out to be impaired was only ten–which itself isn’t a large sample.  It makes it difficult to conclude that if you tested another 13,149 pilots–let’s say–you’d end up with ten again.

This is why I started “failed” vs. Quartz Media’s headline of “is trying to fly drunk”.  All we can conclude about this statistic is what already happened.

The other piece that’s important to note is the difference between flying drunk and impaired.  I think the headline of “trying to fly drunk” suggests the pilot was kicking back brews in the Sam Adams pub before boarding the flight.

While driving has a blood alcohol limit of .08% for personal vehicles, the FAA has set a limit of 0.04% while flying.

This means that someone can show up to a flight impaired, even if they weren’t drinking right before the flight.  This is why pilots and crew have rules about when they have to stop drinking before their flights.

This is the situation that happened in the Horizon case where a flight attendant reported she was retaliated against after reporting that the crew had stayed up late drinking.

According to the plaintiff, Ms. Brown, one of the other flight attendants admitted to her that they went out drinking, then continued drinking back in the captain’s room once the bars closed.

While a pilot may not intend to fly impaired, he or she may still be under the influence from the night before.

It is still very bad that this happens.  I just wanted to point out that it wasn’t quite as bad as the article was making it sound.  When I first read their headline, it seemed to suggest that 1 out of 1,300 pilots will be stumbling onto the plane.

Of course, being under the influence is a little more insidious.  If the pilot is stumbling, it is clear he needs to be pulled off the flight.  Impaired?  I’m not sure someone would realize it enough to make that call.

About Jeanne Marie Hoffman

Former bartender, still a geek. One equal part each cookies, liberty, football, music, travel, libations. Stir vigorously. +Jeanne Marie Hoffman Jeanne on Twitter

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