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United Airlines Now Tells Pilots No Drinking for 12 Hours Before Shift Starts

Brian Sumers, Skift
United Airlines Now Tells Pilots No Drinking for 12 Hours Before Shift Starts

One week after two pilots were arrested in Scotland for failing an alcohol breath test before operating a flight, United Airlines has tightened rules for when pilots must stop drinking before they report to duty, according to a new bulletin.

The airline’s pilots now must take their final sip of alcohol 12 hours before their pre-departure duty period begins. Before Saturday, pilots were allowed eight hours from their final drink to the start of their work period, a period the industry calls “bottle to throttle.”

“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,” United said in a flight operations pilot bulletin.

United’s policy is now more stringent than required by the Federal Aviation Administration, which has an eight-hour bottle-to-throttle mandate, and a 0.04 percent limit for blood-alcohol concentration. United’s three major competitors — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines — all continue to follow the FAA guidelines of eight hours between the last sip and when pilots report for duty.

However, many regulators elsewhere in the world have more stringent requirements, particularly for blood-alcohol concentration. Those guidelines apply to U.S. pilots, when pilots are flying through those countries.

Recent Incident

A United Airlines spokesman confirmed the change but declined to comment further on the new policy. A representative for the Air Line Pilots Association, the union representing United’s pilots, also declined to comment.

Twice in the past two years, police in Glasgow, Scotland, have arrested United pilots before they planned to operate a flight. The most recent incident happened August 3, when two pilots were arrested before operating a departure to Newark, New Jersey. Only one has been charged.

A similar incident occurred in August 2016, with authorities also arresting two pilots headed to Newark. The next year, both pilots were sentenced to jail, one for 10 months and the other for 15, according to BBC News. 

The legal requirement for pilot blood alcohol concentration in the United Kingdom is roughly 0.02, or half the U.S. standard.

In its bulletin, United reminded pilots they could still run afoul of local laws even when they follow the airline’s new guidelines.

“It is essential that pilots understand that minimal compliance of United’s policy does not assure compliance with DOT [Department of Transportation] or individual state standards,” the bulletin said.

“Countries outside the United States have differing policies which include a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.00% and punishment criteria. It is the sole personal responsibility of the pilot to report for duty as defined by the Company, DOT/FAA, or the governing country.”

Other Incidents

While alcohol-related incidents are rare, they happen at many airlines. The largest U.S. carriers, which have thousands of pilots, tend to have a few incidents each year.

Last month authorities at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport arrested a Delta Air Lines pilot who planned to fly that day to San Diego. The Minneapolis Star Tribune quoted a report saying the pilot was “found to be in possession of an alcoholic container.” Delta officials told reporters the airline had “no tolerance” for such issues. 

In February, an American Airlines pilot in Manchester, England, was arrested after authorities suspected he was drunk.

U.S. airlines and the FAA try to ensure that pilots with alcoholism can receive treatment before it becomes a problem. Pilots have access to what’s called the HIMS program, where they can receive treatment so they can continue flying.

“Trained managers and peer pilots interact to identify and, in many cases, conduct an intervention to direct the troubled individual to a substance abuse professional for a diagnostic evaluation,” the program’s website states. “If deemed medically necessary, treatment is then initiated. Following successful treatment and comprehensive continuing care, the pilot is eligible to seek FAA medical re-certification.”

This story was updated with new information about Delta’s and Southwest’s policies. An earlier version of this story misstated the FAA’s BAC limit. It is 0.04 percent.

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