A Pilot's Perspective On Woman Removed From Plane For Asking If Captain Had Been Drinking

Yesterday, we brought you the story of a woman who had been kicked off a Delta flight after asking the flight crew if the flight’s captain had been drinking. This story drew the attention of a Consumerist reader who also happens to be a pilot.

He wrote in to share his perspective on things from the point of view of someone charged with the daunting task of being responsible for a plane-load of passengers. So without further ado, here is what he has to say on the matter:

Imagine I wrote you a letter, accusing you of plagiarism. Would you brush it off or would you make a serious effort to prove that your work is your own? And if I walked into your office and did the same, after proving your case, would you let me stick around or would you ask me to leave? That is the same situation a pilot is put in when someone accusing him of being drunk.

In the case of the Delta pilot, the woman thought she smelled alcohol on the pilot’s breath and raised her concerns. That’s fine and she is within her rights to do so. What she probably doesn’t realize is that by doing so, she is putting that pilot’s entire career in jeopardy. Professional pilots have spent a LOT of time, money, and effort to get where they are. It is a job that requires a lot of knowledge, skill, and split-second decision-making. It is not something any of us take lightly. There are many, many things that any of us can do on any given flight that will get us in trouble with our company or the FAA, and will likely end our careers and, possibly, our lives. That is obviously something we all try to avoid but mistakes can and do happen. Most of the time, the mistake happens before we have time to correct it.

One mistake that we have AMPLE time to prevent is flying under the influence of drugs or alcohol. How do we prevent it? We just don’t do it. Every pilot is well aware of the alcohol limits in aviation. The basic FAA limit is 8 hours between drinking and flying and a max blood alcohol level of 0.04%. Most airlines are more stringent than this. Do you really think a pilot who has invested years of his life, thousands of dollars, and tens of thousands of hours in the air will risk it all by having a drink before his flight? Of course not!

Unfortunately, a few high-profile incidents have occurred so now everything thinks their pilot is an alcoholic. Another industry has been affected by this–have you ever heard of the term “going postal?” Postmen have a stigma for being gun-carrying psychopaths but when was the last time anyone was actually shot by a postal carrier?

Raising a concern over the sobriety of the pilot may seem innocent but it starts a chain of events that can affect his career. As soon as someone raises a concern over the sobriety of a pilot, joking or not, the pilots are grounded until they can prove they are sober. This is done with a breathalyzer. It doesn’t stop there. The co-pilot, flight attendants, gate agents, managers, ground crew, etc. are all witness to what happens. Even if the pilot was sober, he now has a stigma for being an alcoholic. Aviation is a small community and this one event can affect his future career as rumor travels. His co-pilot may be the guy interviewing him in ten years and remember the incident. Or it may go on his record and affect his next pay raise or promotion.

As I said, earlier, any number of things can get a pilot in trouble, even if he doesn’t realize he made a mistake. A friend of mine was almost fined by the FAA because a new FAA inspector thought he was taxiing too fast. The inspector happened to see him taxi by and, in his opinion, the taxi speed was too high and it almost got his license revoked. If this woman thought the pilot was drunk, who’s to say she won’t be critiquing the rest of his flight? What if she thought he taxied too fast, banked too steep, landed too hard, too far down the runway, flew through dangerous weather, etc. All it takes is one letter to the FAA and the pilot has a chance of losing his license and his career.

Alternatively, the woman may begin to talk to other passengers. As word spreads, passengers panic. Panicked people confined inside of a pressurized tube, seven miles above the ground is not a good situation. I’m all for First Amendment rights but you don’t go yelling fire in a crowded theater nor do you incite needless fear in airplane passengers.

So why take that risk? The captain is the final authority on anything that happens on his airplane. Anything from an emergency climb to avoid a flock of birds to removing an expired can of soda in the galley. A passenger who is booted off an airplane will be put on the very next flight. If the flight leaves the next day, they get free food and a free hotel room. It’s not like they kick the passenger to the curb.

This is not an isolated incident, rather it is one you happened to pick up on. Many of my airline pilot friends have told me about being accosted by passengers, accusing them of being drunk. It is not unusual for someone to poke their head in the cockpit and ask the pilots, “Now you boys haven’t been drinking, have you?” As I’ve already said, it wasn’t easy to get where they are, so rather than risk their careers, they have to delay the flight to take a breathalyzer. And the inquiring passenger is usually asked to take the next flight for the reasons I addressed, above.

In the end, the pilot was looking out for the safety of the other passengers and preserving his own career.