The arrest of a Japan Airlines co-pilot in Britain for being intoxicated just before a flight has shed light on the problem of pre-flight consumption of alcohol by airline crews. The fact that the 42-year-old co-pilot was about to board the Oct. 28 flight from London to Tokyo after cheating on an alcohol test at the airport — before being caught by the British police and sentenced to 10 months in prison by a U.K. court — is proof of lax control over airline crews’ consumption of alcohol. Under Japanese law, it has effectively been left up to each airline company to enforce controls. Efforts by the transport ministry and the airline industry to tighten regulations are long overdue. But new regulations must be accompanied by a greater awareness on the part of airline pilots that flying while intoxicated can put huge numbers of lives at risk.
Japan’s aviation law prohibits aircraft crew members from flying when it is feared that they would be unable to properly operate the aircraft due to the effects of alcohol or drugs, and offenders can be punished by up to a year in prison or a fine of up to ¥300,000. However, the law does not set specific levels of alcohol in pre-flight breath tests that would be subject to punishment, and such inspections are not even legally mandated. A government directive bans aviation crews from drinking within eight hours of flight duty, and requires pilots to mutually check each other’s health condition prior to boarding. But the standards and methods of pre-flight alcohol tests for pilots have been left to the discretion of the individual airlines.
What has emerged in the wake of the arrest of the JAL co-pilot — who is found to have consumed two bottles of wine and five cans of beer on the evening before the flight — is that the alcohol problem is prevalent in the airline industry. According to data from the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry shown to an experts’ panel called to discuss the issue, there have been 37 cases since 2013 in which airline pilots were found to have been drinking alcohol beyond the company-set limits before their scheduled flights, 20 of which led to either the cancellation or delay of the flights. Such cases took place in seven of the 25 domestic airline firms, with JAL accounting for 21 of the 37 cases, followed by eight cases involving All Nippon Airways.
The JAL co-pilot, who has been fired by the airline, cleared the pre-flight breath test at a JAL office at Heathrow Airport by cheating and briefly boarded the plane. But a bus driver who transported the crew to the airplane noticed the smell of alcohol and alerted airport security officials. Breath and blood tests by the police confirmed that the level of alcohol in the co-pilot’s system exceeded the legal limit by about tenfold. The two pilots assigned to the same flight have since been suspended by JAL from flight duty for their negligence in checking the co-pilot’s health condition. The case is illustrative of the airline companies’ poor oversight of alcohol consumption by their pilots, and raises the question of whether many such cases have gone undetected.
In the wake of the co-pilot’s case, JAL said it would tighten in-house rules on drinking by its pilots by extending its pre-flight drinking ban from within 12 hours of flight duty to 24 hours and prohibiting the consumption of alcohol in stopover locations between flights. ANA, whose group company fired a pilot who had to be removed from a domestic flight in late October because of the effects of heavy drinking during the previous night, also plans to tighten regulations on pre-flight consumption of alcohol by the group’s pilots.
The transport ministry reportedly plans to set an upper limit on alcohol levels in pre-flight tests on pilots. Britain’s law sets a legal limit on alcohol levels for pilots at 0.09 milligram per 1 liter of breath — 0.93 milligram was detected in the breath of the arrested JAL co-pilot. An equivalent limit in the United States is 0.19 milligram, while the threshold for driving under the influence of alcohol under Japan’s road traffic law is set at 0.15 milligram.
The regulations will need to be tightened and strictly followed. What’s also important is that the pilots themselves have a greater sense of awareness of the tremendous risk such reckless behavior poses for passengers and fellow crew members — as the British judge told the JAL co-pilot in handing down his sentence. The proper training and education of pilots by aviation authorities and airline companies are also critical at a time when the aviation industry faces a chronic worldwide shortage of pilots.