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Ashley Nunes is an Atlanta-based researcher in transportation safety, regulatory affairs, and behavioural economics.
Ashley Nunes is an Atlanta-based researcher in transportation safety, regulatory affairs, and behavioural economics.

Ashley Nunes

Blame unions for our drunk pilot problem Add to ...

Ashley Nunes is an Atlanta-based researcher in transportation safety, regulatory affairs, and behavioural economics.

Well, it happened again. This time, Miroslav Gronych was involved. Calgary police have charged the 37-year-old pilot with operating an aircraft while under the influence of alcohol. Mr. Gronych – who flies jets for Sunwing Airlines – was found slumped over in the cockpit prior to a flight. He reportedly had a blood-alcohol level of more than 0.08: three times the legal limit allowed of pilots in Canada.

The fallout has been swift. Transport Minister Marc Garneau called for an aviation safety summit aimed at preventing a repeat of the Calgary incident. Airline operators, pilot unions and health experts are expected to attend. Mr. Garneau is also seeking assurances from airlines that they have “measures” in place that confirm a pilot’s fitness to fly.

The eight-hour “bottle to throttle” rule is the most well known of these. Pilots are banned from consuming alcohol within eight hours of a flight. Some airlines – such as Sunwing – go further, requiring that no alcohol be consumed within 12 hours of a flight. Whether or not these measures work is anyone’s guess. Under Canadian law, pilots can only be tested for alcohol consumption if they are suspected of being drunk.

It’s a point that labour unions are keen to emphasize. The Air Canada Pilots Association (ACPA), which represents more than 3,300 pilots, noted last week that “mandatory random testing is not generally supported by the jurisprudence.” On whether or not such testing should be allowed, ACPA and its allies have said little.

Why? Because in a bid to protect their members, unions have long opposed alcohol testing on privacy grounds. Such tests are – we are told – intrusive and unhelpful. But the available data suggest these tests are necessary.

In 2015, for example, the United States – where random alcohol testing is permitted – saw 10 pilots test positive. That figure rises to 43 in India, where successfully passing a Breathalyzer test is required of all cabin crew before each and every commercial flight. That’s correct. Some pilots still choose to drink to the point of being legally intoxicated even when there is 100-per-cent certainty of being tested for alcohol consumption before flying.

Science offers some answers as to why. Studies show that pilots are bad at judging whether or not they are under the influence of alcohol. They think they can drink more than they should and, more worryingly, are inclined to return to work sooner than they should.

One study found that about 22 per cent of pilots surveyed, “thought that it was safe to fly within one hour after consuming one or more alcoholic drinks.” Another 2 per cent thought it was safe to fly within an hour of having three or more drinks.

These figures are alarming. The undesirable effects of alcohol – headaches, fatigue and bad judgment included – can last up to 72 hours after the last drink. But such figures also demonstrate why stricter safety measures are needed – measures such as mandatory testing for alcohol consumption.

Union opposition to such a measure is all but certain. Representatives will argue that intoxication in the cockpit is rare, that piloting is already a highly scrutinized career and that alcohol testing is an affront to the dedication and professionalism of thousands. Most importantly, they will say that despite the best safety measures, intoxication in the cockpit cannot be completely ruled out.

Maybe not, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.

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