The View From Here – Airport security is pointless if pilots can man the cockpit while impaired

Tom Henihan
In todays hyper-vigilant, security obsessed airports it is unlikely that a drunken passenger would make it passed the check-in desk much less make his or her way onto a plane.

However, an impaired pilot having consumed over three times the legal limit of alcohol can manage to reach the cockpit and pass out, suggesting that airline passengers are held to a much greater level of scrutiny than the crew is.

According to police, on the morning of December 31, a drunken Sunwing pilot boarded a Boeing 737 in Calgary with 99 passengers onboard for a flight scheduled to land in Regina and Winnipeg before continuing to its final destination in Cancun, Mexico.

In a news conference, Staff Sergeant Paul Stacey said the crews at the gate and on the plane observed the pilot acting strangely, before he passed out unconscious in the cockpit.

Sergeant Stacey said the pilot has been charged with “having care and control of an aircraft while impaired, and having care and control of an aircraft with a blood alcohol level over .08.”

Sunwing also issued a statement saying that the airline is “appreciative of our crew’s diligence in handling this very unfortunate matter… We are very apologetic for any upset that this has caused and would like to assure our customers that safety remains our utmost priority.”

If the crew, especially the crew on the gate were anywhere near as diligent as the Sunwing statement commends, why was the pilot allowed to board the plane.

It is hardly commendable that the crew waited until the co-pilot discovered the captain unconscious in the cockpit before taking the situation in hand and calling the police.

With a minimum degree of diligence, the pilot should never have had care and control of an aircraft while impaired.

“It had all the potential for a disaster, but I’ll tell you this much, the likelihood of a pilot on a major airline like this actually being able to takeoff when they’re impaired like that is pretty slim, because there’s a lot of checks and balances,” said Stacey. “There’s the other flight crew and there’s gate crew and they’re all about safety.”

Being able to take off when “they’re impaired like that is pretty slim,” is an alarming turn of phrase as it suggests that in a lesser degree of inebriation the pilot may have managed to fly the plane.

It appears that those who represent the rules and who are supposed to exemplify the standards of our institutions are not held to those standards as stringently as the lay individual is.

I am slow to advocate additional rules and regulations but in light of all the inconvenience and humiliating infringements that passengers undergo, it would also be prudent and equitable for flight crews to take mandatory breathalyzer tests before boarding.

I suspect that many pilots would take affront if asked to take a breathalyzer test before flying. However, passengers also take exception when put through such rigours but they must accept these measures as necessary.

If the drunken state of a pilot is deemed alarming only after he passes out in the cockpit, then all the scanning, probing, body searching, x-raying and profiling of passengers may amount to nothing more than seating the catalyst for disaster in the cockpit rather than in the cabin.

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