After cult movies like Flight, with it’s famous alcoholic airline Captain, it’s a question that’s been on many people’s minds — do airline pilots get drug and alcohol tested? And if so, when?
The answer is yes. Pilots are required to pass regular tests to maintain their licence and fly passengers safely.
But when they aren’t flying planes, are pilots allowed to drink alcohol, and can pilots ever take drugs? As many pilots will tell you, these questions arise surprisingly frequently. From personal experience, I’ve had many curious friends and family members say things like — “Are you allowed a beer Josh, aren’t you working tomorrow?”
In this blog post, we’ll take a look at how often pilots are drug and alcohol tested, what kind of drugs they are tested for, and what happens if they fail a test.
When do pilots get drug and alcohol tested?
There are three ways pilots normally get drug and alcohol tested: pre-employment checks, medical checks, and random spot checks.
- Pre-employment checks are done before a pilot is hired by an airline. The airline will want to make sure that the person they’re hiring is healthy and fit to fly, and drug and alcohol tests are part of that initial application process.
- Medical checks are done periodically throughout a pilot’s career. Pilot medicals are undertaken for a general fitness to fly, but stress, mental health and alcohol consumption are also heavily monitored. Medical checks are required to be performed every year, and more regularly if the pilot is over the age of 60.
- Random spot checks are just that – random. They can be done at any time, typically by airport police, and these usually involve both drug and alcohol tests. Spot checks are done after the pilot has reported fit for work, to ensure that pilots are staying clean and sober before operating.
What kind of drugs do pilots get tested for?
Truth be told, pilot drug testing is in its infancy. While spot checks for alcohol testing have been a wider part of pilots’ lifestyles for decades, globally, drug testing is yet to catch up.
Some countries are better than others — In the USA about 25% of all “safety-sensitive airline employees” — which includes pilots are randomly tested for drugs annually. However, in many places airlines operate to, airport authorities don’t have the capabilities to test for specific drugs, relying on measures of impairment instead.
That being said, where drug testing is involved, most pilots are tested for the same drugs that other safety-sensitive employees are tested for, ranging from Marijuana to Heroin.
Can pilots drink alcohol?
Yes, but strict rules surround when, and how much, pilots can drink. The most widespread rule — frequently referred to as the “bottle-to-throttle” rule — states pilots are not allowed to drink alcohol within eight hours of a flight.
And when pilots do drink, they’re limited to “moderate drinking” within 12-24 hours of flying. What’s defined as moderate drinking? Well, it varies from country to country and airline to airline. It’s normally taken to mean 2 large beers, or 2 glasses of wine within 24 hours of operating.
Finally, some airlines also place additional rules on their pilots, written into their terms of employment. For instance, Japan Airlines implemented a rule in 2019, banning its pilots from drinking any alcohol at all within 24 hours of flying.
What happens if a pilot fails a drug or alcohol test?
This largely depends on when a pilot fails a drug or alcohol test. If it’s during a medical test, there is a chance for rehabilitation, and the pilot will be grounded until they can prove that they are healthy and fit to fly again. Substance abuse programs such HIMS have helped over 12,000 pilots recover and return to flying.
In 2018, the FAA issued about 1,200 special medical certificates for recovering pilots—roughly 0.2 percent of all active U.S. pilots.Pilots struggling with alcoholism, it doesn’t have to be a career-ender — Smithsonian
If a pilot fails a random spot check, it’s a different story. With spot checks taking place after a pilot has reported to work, pilot’s that fail spot checks are breaking the law — usually an automatic termination of their employment.
Pilot’s attempting to fly a plane whilst over the limit will be arrested, and could face jail time.
Airlines have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to drugs and alcohol, and for good reason, pilots are responsible for hundreds of peoples lives when they’re in the air.
Summary: Pilot drug and alcohol testing
Unlike popular movies — thanks Denzel Washington — it’s widely accepted that drugs and alcohol don’t improve pilot’s performance! Drugs and alcohol are hugely frowned upon in the profession.
However, the extent to which they are tested for varies hugely across the globe. In the US, for example, random drug testing is conducted on a much more regular basis than some areas in Europe. But while drug testing can be lacking, many areas of Europe have stronger random alcohol testing alongside lower, zero-tolerance limits.
There are three types of tests that pilots can be subjected to: pre-employment drug tests, ongoing medical testing, and random drug screens. While there are successful rehabilitation programs for pilots suffering from drug and alcohol addition, these normally rely on self identifying early. For pilots that fail random checks whilst at work, returning to flying is exceptionally rare.
Next time you’re on a plane, rest assured knowing that your pilot is clean and sober, and ready to get you to your destination safely.