24Hr emergency line +44 (0)20 8476 4099
Join Balpa

Relax and enjoy your drugs and alcohol test

by Dr Rob Hunter BALPA Head of Flight Safety

Following the Germanwings tragedy, in which misuse of drugs or alcohol actually played no part, the regulators nonetheless took this to be a pretext on which to introduce drug and alcohol testing.

BALPA has raised concerns over these tests. Recent correspondence with the CAA shows that their take on the situation has not considered the subtleties or pitfalls of such testing, and they appear to have taken the ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ approach.

We believe this testing could lead to emotional distress of pilots. The CAA disagrees this would be the case. In a letter to BALPA they state, “Our view is that all pilots should be prepared to undergo alcohol testing as it is being undertaken in an increasing number of States both within and outside Europe. It should be considered part of the job and to be expected. Alcohol testing normally involves blowing into a tube for a few seconds. The testing is non-invasive and only takes about 30 seconds in total so should not be disruptive to the operation either before or after a flight or during a turnaround. Emotional distress is unlikely to result from this type of testing and we are encouraging operators to ensure their crew know that this type of testing may be encountered during the course of their duties.”

Missing the point

We take a different view on whether the emotional distress of an alcohol or drugs test might lead a pilot to reasonably determine that they are unfit to fly.

We have since responded to the CAA’s letter to reiterate our concerns and point out that BALPA believes the comments about the time taken to complete the test and its complexity seem to have missed the point. Our overarching feeling is that separate from whether a pilot is justified in feeling anxious, it is the fact of their feeling anxious that determines their fitness. The risk of giving a message that pilots shouldn’t feel anxious is that pilots do not feel empowered to make a safe decision and instead they are pressured to take their distraction into the air. Indeed, the very accident that contributed to the development of the UK CAA, Papa India, markedly had this element of a crew that was distracted in the immediate pre-flight period.

Further, in our view, there are elements of the legislation that are poorly conceived. Essentially, from the North report we know that the current legislation is an extension of the driving legislation. The offence is committed by being over the limit and performing the duty, not by knowingly consuming the drug such that one is over the limit when the duty is performed. This distinction is largely irrelevant at the alcohol limit for driving but it becomes relevant at the much lower limit for flying. This is because it is unlikely that a driver who had a contaminated drink provided to them could get to the driving limit without strong subjective sensation of the effects of the alcohol. However, a pilot being served a chilled orange juice that, by mischief or mistake, was contaminated with a small amount of alcohol could be over flying limit without any subjective awareness of the effects of the alcohol. This could especially be the case when the pilot without consumption of the contaminated drink might otherwise have some legal very low level of alcohol. The vulnerability that pilots have in this regard is that they may frequently consume drinks that are prepared and served to them by others. Moreover, the contamination problem need not only be by a third party, for the other (non-alcohol) drug tests results can be initially positive because the test threshold is set at an extraordinarily low level, leading to an initial positive result until laboratory quantification results are available perhaps some days later.

Finally, the consequences of being over the limit for a pilot are profoundly serious, with a prison sentence more than likely than not – even when the pilot might have no subjective feeling of impairment, as well as no measurable impairment in laboratory testing.

Your views on alcohol testing

We await a response from the CAA but rest assured BALPA will not let the introduction or change of procedures that might undermine the pilot’s ability to ensure that every flight is a safe flight go unchallenged. We would be very interested in your views on alcohol testing; is it something we should just get used to? Is a test a stressful experience that might interfere with the way you can do your job even when you know you have no alcohol in your system? Does it depend on a pilot’s personality? Please feel free to share any thoughts you might have either below or send them to FlightSafety@balpa.org