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Tue, Feb 14, 2006

Drunk Pilot Charges New To American, Not Industry

General Aviation Also Experiencing A Cluster Of Boozy Embarrassments

As Aero-News reported this weekend, one manifested person wasn't aboard American Airline Flight 66 from Manchester, England to Chicago when it took off an hour late Saturday morning. He was the reason the flight was late. You see, he was one of the pilots, and was under arrest on suspicion of being drunk.

The pilot, who remains unidentified, was released after unspecified tests and must report to a Manchester police station on Tuesday. While this is the first high-profile alcohol-related incident to taint American Airlines's escutcheon, a look at Aero-News's archives and other news sources tell us that there have been a number of such incidents in recent years.

Flight 55 normally leaves Manchester with three pilots aboard. The third or "relief" pilot is required because the flight is over eight hours long, and as the title suggests, spells the other two pilots during the flight. The flight, originally a nonstop, was redispatched to stop in New York and pick up a third pilot for the last leg of the flight. Along with the late start, the extra stop made the flight almost four hours late to Chicago.

The accused pilot hasn't been identified yet. He is 45 years old, male, and a resident of Ohio. He was the scheduled relief pilot on Flight 55. The airplane is a Boeing 767-300. Among American's pilots, 767 international seats are considered a plum assignment, and are a popular bid for pilots with enough seniority (many American pilots remain furloughed, and some 767 pilots of 2001 now drive 737s).

In an interview, American spokesman Tim Wagner told the Associated Press that this was an "isolated incident." (You don't say!!) "American Airlines has strict policies on alcohol and substance abuse and holds its employees to the highest standards," a statement from the company said by way of amplification.

There have reportedly been other incidents of "suspicion of drunkenness" at Manchester in which the accused pilots have ultimately been cleared. Aviation experts and British pilots seem to agree that security is on a particular hair trigger at Manchester, compared to other British airports. This may be due to the Finnair incident in 2004 (see below) having raised security personnel's consciousness).

While American Airlines has dodged the bullet till now on pilot drunkenness, and might dodge this one yet if it's another false alarm, it's not because American has few pilots. The world's largest airline, since the break-up of Aeroflot, American has about 9,265 active pilots, of whom about 2,855 are on furlough. (These unofficial numbers were grabbed off a pilot-jobs website -- take them with a grain of salt).

Selected Air Carrier Alcohol Incidents

October 2005, Miami: A United Air Lines pilot was removed from the cockpit, questioned by police, and suspended by the airline, but no breath or blood test was done. TSA screeners said they smelled alcohol on his breath. This incident may still be under administrative investigation and/or appeal.

August, 2004, Manchester, England: Finnair pilot Heikki Tallila was arrested, while preparing to fly a charter full of vacationers, drunk.  His 225 passengers waited on the 757 for six hours for Finnair to find a replacement pilot, before finally jetting off to Turkey. Tallila got a six month jail sentence, lost his job and license, and had to seek treatment for alcoholism and depression.

May, 2004, Scranton, PA: An FAA inspector told authorities he smelled alcohol on the breath of a Vacation Air FO. Arrested, Scott Russell told a judge during his guilty plea that the arrest saved his life. He was sentenced to 8-14 months.

November 2003, Norway: a British Airways pilot was arrested while preparing to fly -- he may have been sober, but his copilot and other crewmembers were drunk. He was sentenced to six months in prison in June, 2005. 

July 2003, Dayton, OH: Screeners accuse an AirTran pilot of being drunk. He is given a Breathalyzer right on the jetway -- and blows a 0.0. The screeners are fired after an investigation, but demand their jobs back. (They also refer to a Michigan drunk-pilot incident the same month, which we were not otherwise able to document.

July 2002, Miami: Thomas Cloyd and Christopher Hughes, a pilot and copilot for America West were busted taxiing under the influence. After a plea offer was rejected, they stood trial with the bold if hopeless defense that, since they were stopped while the airplane was still being tugged, they weren't actually operating it. They were convicted in 2005 and sentenced to prison (5 years for the captain, 2 1/2 years for the FO). Immediately after the incident, they were fired by America West and suffered emergency license revocation.

In addition to the air carrier incidents enumerated here, there have been a plethora of GA drunk-pilot cases lately. In December, ANN's Editor in Chief Jim Campbell discussed them with AOPA Medical Certification Director Gary Crump. It was the day's special podcast feature on December 1, 2005.

FMI: www.aa.com

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