By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 11/6/2007 1:04:54 PM ET 2007-11-06T18:04:54

Every once in a while you hear the media buzz about a pilot or a flight attendant being drunk on the job or being removed from duty on suspicion of intoxication. When it hits the headlines, we hear endless jokes and comments from passengers. The day after the recent episode concerning a flight attendant who was removed from a Delta Connection flight, I counted more than 25 comments, questions and wisecracks on my flights.

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Let's face it: Alcohol is an abusive intruder in every society. And I think it is safe to say that the lifestyle of airline crew members is conducive to overindulgence. We are away from loved ones for long periods, we are frequently in exciting parts of the world, our hotels and downtown locations make bars and nightclubs readily accessible, and crew parties are a normal pastime. But as far as being intoxicated on duty goes, these are truly isolated occurrences.

The last pilot incident I can remember was when two America West pilots were tested, tried and convicted of being at work while over the legal limit. They received prison sentences and were stripped of all flying licenses.

The most recent cabin incident occurred when the Delta Connection flight attendant was pulled off her flight for being intoxicated and threatening the captain. You can see her police booking and judge her condition at the time on YouTube (isn't modern technology scary?). Another bizarre case involved two Aeroflot flight attendants who reportedly assaulted a passenger who accused them of being drunk.

There have been only a handful of media-reported incidents in the last 15 years, and while I'm sure there are cases that go unnoticed, think of the many thousands of flights that take off each day without any of the crew members being drunk.

Long gone are the days when Margaret, an older flight attendant of my acquaintance, boarded the aircraft and poured herself two fingers of scotch from the first class liquor cart to start off her nine-hour flight, and when pilots who'd had a bit too much to drink on their layover arrived at the airport with alcohol still on their breath, or when some members of the crew routinely shared a "landing drink." Did that really happen before? Sure, I remember many such occurrences in the old days, when I flew for Pan Am.

Does it happen now? Quite a bit less than the media would have you believe.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you are worried about your flight crew being drunk:

1. Federal Aviation Administration regulations state that no pilot or flight attendant may perform flight duties within eight hours of consuming alcohol. Many airlines have a 12-hour policy.

2. Random alcohol and drug testing is performed on all flight-crew members. I have been tested three times in the last two years.

3. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is on the lookout for crew members smelling of alcohol and has been responsible for pursuing many incidents.

4. A typical airline pilot has flown 10,000 hours and spent more than $100,000 in education expenses to become qualified to fly. An alcohol conviction not only jeopardizes a pilot's job but also all licenses (which is career-ending) — and entails serious prison time.

5. The drinker is not the only one at risk of serious disciplinary action. Pilots and flight attendants are trained to deal with fellow crew members drinking on the job and are required to report them.

6. What you smell could have an innocent explanation. I was once flying as a passenger in my uniform on my way to work when my seatmate spilled his glass of wine on me. I cleaned it up as much as possible, but I still smelled like a winery.

7. Most airlines have effective employee assistance programs that deal with substance abuse problems. A few of my friends have been required to go through the program.

8. If you suspect a crew member to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, notify an airport police officer or a TSA agent and let them handle the rest. They will investigate the matter fully, I guarantee you.

9. Don't joke about recent incidents to your flight crew. Believe me, by the time you say something, we've already heard it many times that day. And remember the America West incident? The next day a passenger was removed from a flight for making a wisecrack about the pilots to the flight attendant. I guess she'd lost her sense of humor.

I remember a few Halloweens ago, when a passenger thought it would be clever to come to the airport dressed up as a pilot. He hit the bars for a good three hours before his flight and became drunk. Several passengers became alarmed when he claimed to be their pilot. Security was called. Not only did the drunk miss his flight, he also spent the night in the local jail.

As far as trick-or-treat goes, I guess it wasn't such a funny trick after all.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.


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