The Air Line Pilots Association didn't like our recent report about the problems of drunken pilots. A federal investigation turned up 30 pilots working for major airlines who had at least one conviction for driving while intoxicated.
Only 30 of the 40,000 airline pilots? That's a mere .075 percent. "I think that any profession you can name would be delighted to be able to say that it had such a low rate of closet alcoholism," responds ALPA President Henry Duffy.
Well, isn't that comforting? Duffy is "delighted" that only 30 of his pilots were caught in a major error in judgment: driving while drunk. Next time you fly, why not play a little game and guess whether one of the 30 is in the cockpit of your plane?
But flying is not just "any profession." If your plumber has a drinking problem, it's unfortunate, but it won't keep you from getting your drain unstopped. Plumbers have a right to be delighted if only .075 percent of their number are convicted drunken drivers. But we would feel more comfortable if zero percent of our airline pilots had a drinking problem. And we are sure that Duffy agrees. The admirable record of ALPA in helping to rehabilitate its alcoholic pilots speaks for itself.
The point is not that 30 airline pilots were caught with their judgment down. The point is that the Federal Aviation Administration has done a lamentable job of policing pilots with drinking problems -- not just airline pilots, but anyone licensed to fly a private or commercial plane.
That is not our conclusion alone. It is also the conclusion of a study by the Transportation Department's inspector general, reviewed by our reporter Frank Byrt. As we reported, the inspectors looked at a sampling of 10,300 pilots, private and commercial, who lost their drivers' licenses for driving while intoxicated.
A chilling 7,850 of them lied about the convictions when they took the medical exams required periodically by the FAA, and the FAA never knew it. Instead of independently checking drunken driving records, the FAA takes the pilots' word for it. Their word isn't good enough for us sweaty-palmed fliers, and it shouldn't be good enough for ALPA either.
The FAA has no uniform procedure for revoking a pilot's license to fly, even when it does happen to find out that the pilot has a drinking problem.
The Transportation Department investigation only scratches the surface. Inspectors didn't look at cases of drug convictions, nor at use of prescription drugs. Remember the Delta Airlines crash in Fort Worth in 1985 that killed 137 people? Recent testimony in a lawsuit stemming from the case alleges that the pilot had a prescription for tranquilizers. There is no evidence he took the drug on the day of the crash, but the FAA didn't even know he had the prescription. Use of the drug would have disqualified him from flying.
We don't mean to pick on pilots for major airlines. We are concerned about anyone who makes the skies more dangerous. Even if your own pilot is cold sober, it is no comfort to be sharing the landing pattern with another plane if the other pilot is drunk or hung over. In fact, it is no comfort to be on the ground, knowing that 10,300 licensed pilots were found unfit to drive a car.