Drunks In The Cockpit: A Problem?
On a news sensationalism scale of one to 10, stories about drunken airline pilots are about an 11. These seem to pop up in the news cycle about once a month and occasionally, just to really turbocharge them, we even get video of the pilot stumbling through security and falling down %^$faced into the cockpit as a mortified flight attendant looks on.
Diligent readers will recall that over the weekend, we hit the lottery with not just one drunken pilot story, but two, plus a bonus video of a juiced captain wobbling through security, then slurring his way through a PA announcement.
What to think of all this? As a pilot, I suspect you assume what I assume. Even though they appear on the evening news with concerning regularity, they’re such isolated incidents as to hardly merit mention, much less worry. But is something that occurs once a month isolated? A solar eclipse is a rare event; 12 times a year is not.
But I suspect you understand that these incidents are flyspecks among millions of flight operations each year. Statistically, they’re indistinguishable from the background noise. And they’re not increasing, so why worry about it? But how do you know they’re not increasing? Like me, you probably just assume it. But you could be wrong for all the contextual information news stories—including ours—give.
We have in place a reasonably tight net of random testing to snare drunks and druggies from entering the cockpit and what data is available suggests that the problem, if it even is one, is infinitesimally small and not trending in either direction. But to inform your thinking on this, it helps to know the actual numbers.
The FAA requires companies to have in place a random alcohol and drug testing program. It used to require 50 percent of all safety-related employees to be tested, but that was reduced when it was surmised that the tack was too small to hit with such a large hammer. Now it’s 25 percent.
The FAA told me this week that for 2015, 56,327 random alcohol screening tests were given, which yielded 119 people having 0.04 blood alcohol level or higher. Ten of these were pilots for a percentage of 0.017. Keep that number in mind next time you see a drunken pilot story. Since 1995, when the random testing program started, an average of 11 pilots have failed the alcohol screening. There is no trend, just a spikey graph from year to year. (High 22 in 2002; low three in 1995.)
The screening program also hunts for illicit drug use, including marijuana, opiates, cocaine, amphetamines and phencyclidine. Here, the raw numbers are a little higher for positives on random tests, but for 2015, the percentage of positives was identical to alcohol: 0.017 percent positive.
So with these low numbers, where’s the problem? There isn’t one, unless you consider 0.017 percent a valid risk. Triple it and you‘re still not up to a full point. And as far as I know, there is no recent alcohol-involved accident history related to airline flying. (GA is another story. I’ll examine it in a future blog.)
So why are we running these stories? Two reasons: One is that the flying public has a compelling reason to know if the airline pilots flying the airplanes they’re riding on are likely to be sober. With vanishingly small exceptions, they are and the stories should say this each time we run them. Ours did not (although we have in the past) and many other outlets don’t either. Next time, we will include that, probably providing a link to this blog just to put things in statistical perspective.
The second reason we run these stories is the same reason the evening news gives them 12 seconds: click bait. Readers like reading them for the same reason we used to put bad car wrecks above the fold in newspapers. Just to lend detail to this, I put on my Internal Affairs Division hat and emailed my colleague Russ Niles to ask about his decision-making on the weekend story. Here’s his reply:
“The decision to run the story was based on two factors: hard news value and the availability of the video for the guy in Indonesia. The Indonesian story came in first and I was on the fence about running it until I saw the video. It was still not a firm choice for the Monday flash until the story from Calgary came in.
These were two examples of extreme pilot behavior in a short period of time that are similar to those we occasionally run on other types of safety violations by pilots. Simply put, pilots are interested in this stuff and, yes, I believe that our audience understands that egregious safety violations, regardless of their nature, are rare among pilots.
There is also the fact that there is pressure from you [me being editorial director] and Tim Cole [Belvoir editorial VP] to ensure that aviation-related stories that hit your CNN and ABC news alert boxes get covered in AVweb and both of these qualified under that protocol.”
As I apply ointment to the burns from my own petard, there in a nutshell you see how spectacle and competitive pressure combine to push news judgment in a direction our instincts, on further reflection, might cause us to reconsider. Had I been on the news desk over the weekend, I’d have made the same decision. And if you clicked on the Monday newsfeed and didn’t see the drunk pilots story you knew you saw over the weekend, you’d have thought we missed it.
Next time, as is my wont, I’ll make sure we include the rest of the story. Meanwhile, I can't resist leaving you with Dean Martin's and Foster Brooks' hilarious shtick on the drunk airline pilot. I dare you not to laugh.