How Many Drunk Pilots Are There?

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The arrest of a United pilot Monday, for allegedly drinking prior to his flight, has helped unearth statistics that, according to the Associated Press, show him to be "the third U.S. pilot arrested in 13 months" on similar charges, but FAA records may suggest the number should be higher. USA Today reported federal statistics showing that over the past decade "nearly a dozen" pilots per year test positive for alcohol while attempting to fly. Those figures are distilled from sample of the group that starts as a pool of about 140,000 active ATP rated pilots. But not all of those pilots use their certificates vocationally, and not all of them are tested. Testing, which looks for a blood alcohol content of more than 0.04 percent, usually involves about 10,000 randomly selected pilots each year. While the NTSB has not attributed any airline crash to drunkenness in the cockpit, there are political ramifications as the numbers feed into the news-of-the-day mix that includes the Northwest overflight of MSP and the taxiway landing at ATL.

Some industry advocates (Flight 1549's Jeff Skiles included) have suggested that professionalism in the cockpit has faltered due to lower pay, longer hours and reduced or eliminated benefits. But the effect of alcohol positives in the cockpit on that argument may be stifled until it is shown that the incidents are on the rise, independent of changes in testing.