United Airlines Pilot Is Too Drunk To Fly

This whole “drunks on a plane” thing is getting out of control. First it was the passengers, then the flight attendants… now it’s the pilots.

The AP says:

United Airlines says 1 of its pilots has been arrested by police for being over the legal alcohol limit.

The airline says the first officer was due to join the crew of flight 955 from London’s Heathrow Airport to San Francisco when he was arrested early Sunday morning. London’s Metropolitan Police say the 44-year-old was arrested following a breath test but has since been bailed.

Fox News has some quotes from horrified passengers who witnessed the pilot being marched off the plane:

“A couple of police officers stormed on to the plane as we were all sitting down and went straight for the cockpit.

“We didn’t have a clue what was happening and we were kept waiting on the plane for hours.

“It is horrifying to think we were apparently so close to being flown thousands of miles by somebody who could have been drinking.”

United Airlines issued a statement about the incident:

“United Airlines’ alcohol policy is among the strictest in the industry and we have absolutely no tolerance for abuse or violation of this well-established policy.

“Safety is our number one priority and the pilot has been removed from service while we are co-operating with the authorities and conducting a full investigation.


Pilot arrested after failing breath test [Reuters]
‘Drunk’ United Airlines Pilot Arrested Before Takeoff [Fox News]
Pilot arrested in UK for being over alcohol limit [WHBF]
Pilot Arrested at Heathrow Following Breath Test[WSJ Middle Seat Blog]
(Photo: Zonaphoto )


Edit Your Comment

  1. bonzombiekitty says:

    Pilots drinking too much before flying has been a concern for a long time. They’ve been cracking down on it a lot more in the past several years.

  2. JPinCLE says:

    Oh, I’m sure he didn’t have an important role in the flight… what’s the big deal? I’m sure he “just had one.”

    • CaliforniaCajun says:

      @JPinCLE: The rule is: eight hours from bottle to throttle. “Just one” is one too many and speaks to the arrogance of a lot of pilots – not all, mind you, but some. It’s the same arrogance that intoxicated folks call upon when they say “I’m OK to drive”.

      United should let this guy go at the very least – and he’ll still be subject to FAA penalties and fines.

  3. Toof_75_75 says:

    Maybe he has a hard time focusing and he finds that flying drunk causes him to pay more attention to what he’s supposed to be doing… HAHA I kid, but seriously, what was this guy thinking?! I can appreciate needing a drink, but perhaps next time wait until you won’t be in the cockpit of a plane…

  4. citabria says:

    Actually, the BAC for a pilot flying to the US is .04 . So “just one” could put you over the limit.

    • katylostherart says:

      @citabria: it should be zero. don’t drink before you fly a plane full of 1-300 people.

      • ivanthemute says:

        @katylostherart: For the USAF and a few carriers any BAC over .01 is grounds for removal. Most pilots I know follow the “8 Hour” rule, which is no alcohol within 8 hours of their next flight.

        • katylostherart says:

          @ivanthemute: i’d rather zero tolerance be an faa rule or something. a plane is just one of those things where the margin for error can result in a lot of deaths besides your own. even if the plane was empty of everyone but the pilot it could still wipe out half a neighborhood in a crash. and that 8 hour rule is kind of crap too. i mean i can drink a bottle of vodka, stop drinking and still definitely be drunk 8 hours later. and i’m sure you could say that’s pretty extreme but it’s not so uncome to have 8 drinks on a good night out for a lot of people. bac of zero and that’s it.

      • MadameX says:

        @katylostherart: I completely agree. ANY is “too much” when it comes to flying an airplane.

  5. cmcd14 says:

    Let me guess, they’re taking the situation very seriously.

  6. MikeGrenade says:

    Yes, but are they taking it seriously?

  7. floraposte says:

    Still outstripped by the great Northwest flight of 1990 with all three pilots drunk and actually making the flight. And their BACs were .06, .08, and .13, so two of them were drunk by highway standards as well. They got jail time.

  8. katylostherart says:

    while i’m perfectly in support of people that want to take their own lives, being willing to take other people’s lives is just wrong. this is why drinking and operating any sort of vehicle should not only be illegal (like this) but should be a great indicator of how much of a dick you are because you’re ok with risking other people’s lives.

    • Winstonian says:

      @katylostherart: Actually – this is something that the airlines and the FAA encourage. Going to just about any type of life counseling – for marriage issues, unhappiness, middle-age blues, debt counseling – and *any* medications that are not on a very short list invalidates your legality of flying. Then they pull your medical certificate until 6-12 months *after* you have stopped taking them.

      Wife leave ya for the gardener? Don’t go to counseling for it unless you’ve got a year’s salary in the bank (where her lawyer can’t get it). Need some blood pressure meds that aren’t on the list? Bye-bye paycheck for at least 6 months…. and there’s no guarantee that the FAA will allow you back later.

      Instead, some pilots self-medicate instead of walking away from their income, health care, and pensions. It’s unfortunate, but completely understandable (which is not to say excusable). The airlines squeeze all the employees as hard as they can, and the FAA rules treat any self-care type of activity suspiciously. The rules of the game create the very situation that they’re trying to prevent!

      • katylostherart says:

        @WinstonGaloodle: as you said, understandable but not excusable, not in the least. just because you’re having a bad year or a bad week or a bad whatever and can’t afford to treat it with anything other than booze doesn’t mean you should be off the hook at all for what your actions can do to others. speaking from personal experience on a lot of shit happening all at once with little to no acceptable recourse, i still didn’t go out, get drunk and drive home. i do not believe mitigating circumstances should apply to preventable destruction.

  9. m4ximusprim3 says:

    Oh, whatever. Everything’s all electronic these days anyways. Let the guy have some fun!

    • stopNgoBeau says:

      @m4ximusprim3: I’ll drink to that!

    • Moosehawk says:

      @m4ximusprim3: I’ll drink AND fly to that!

      There was a Mythbusters episode a few weeks or months back that proved someone who has never flown before could land a plane with the guidance of a trained pilot/flight controller. I think a pilot with a few beers could take ya home =P

      • m4ximusprim3 says:

        @Moosehawk: Honestly, now that I think about it, there was a lot more “turbulence” on flights back in the 80’s than there is now.

        I would bet “turbulence” is pilot code for “bumped the wheel while pouring another finger of dewars”

  10. Zanorfes says:

    Not sure what’s worse…the pilot drunk of the story where the pilot actually fell asleep during the flight, causing the FAA to frantically radio them because they were going to fast while approaching the airport.

  11. MyPetFly says:

    The Navy’s rule of thumb is “Twelve hours bottle to throttle,” but apparently United’s is eight hours, not that it would have made a difference in this case.

  12. Chatter22 says:

    I’m sure United is taking it “very seriously.”

  13. "I Like Potatoes" says:

    I don’t really get the “taking it seriously” comments. It’s not like United let the guy fly the plane and then found him drunk. They got him off the plane before it took off. United handled the situation the was it was supposed to be handled and everyone lived to tell about it. I don’t see how United did anything wrong here.

  14. shepd says:

    Did he fail a blood test? Pilots already have much higher standards for alcohol than drivers, and breathalyzers are notoriously inaccurate, putting people in prison that don’t belong there.



    I don’t drink, but if I did, I’d ask (politely) for a blood test over the breath test. I wouldn’t refuse the breath test (since that’s illegal in most places), but if they refused to give me a blood test as well, I’d want it on the police record that I requested it and was denied. The only reason I’ve thought of this is one of the fail conditions found in the hardware for some breathalyzer machines is literally a fail. As in you blow over when you haven’t had anything to drink.

    • Ein2015 says:

      @shepd: It’s sad how few people know about this.

      Of course, with MADD making anything alcoholic look evil and anything (no matter how buggy, incorrect, or just plain wrong) that rats out people drinking alcohol look heavenly.


      • little stripes says:

        @Ein2015: Really? You honestly don’t think that a PILOT who has even one drink doesn’t belong in prison? Really? Sorry, but the breathlizer is a-ok for me, in this case. One drink should = prison time, when you are FLYING A PLANE FULL OF PEOPLE.

        • shepd says:

          @little stripes:

          I’ve not read all the articles, but it seems this man is being crucified by the breathalyzer machine and nothing else.

          Unless he’s admitted somewhere that he actually had one drink, the breathalyzer, in not just my opinion, but the expert opinion of others has NOT proven beyond any doubt he’s had any alcoholic drinks. That’s not to say it’s wrong in this case–it’s generally a very accurate machine, it would need to be to pass judicial review! But it also has extremely serious flaws for a machine that can literally imprison someone based on its readout. And when we’re getting down to numbers this low, I wonder how accurate it really is compared to a blood test.

          And, while I can’t vouch for anyone else on the aircraft, I don’t want a pilot flying the plane that gets incapacitated on one or two drinks unless it’s due to a medical reason that doesn’t indicate he’s a sick person. I also don’t want a pilot that *is* incapacitated at the time, either. I don’t think the fine line is as low as this airline sets it, though. Then again, the fine line for automobiles is too low, IMHO, since I believe the original intention was to have it low enough that by the time someone actually GOT a blood test, they’d still have enough alcohol in their system to fail. With roadside tests, this workaround isn’t necessary anymore.

  15. jenl1625 says:

    Given the bit about the cops storming onto the plane and into the cockpit, it sounds like the typical “his coworkers called the police per company policy” situation that’s happened at least a few times before.

    Co-pilots and flight attendants are no more eager to have a drunk pilot then the rest of the passengers are . . . .

  16. XianZhuXuande says:

    Ass-hat gets drunk and tries to fly. Gets smacked down hard by company which doesn’t want him to kill their passengers. Everything seems to have happened the way it should have.

    • Michael Belisle says:

      @Ein2015: Only people I’ve met who know oodles about sobriety tests, failure rates, when you can refuse a test (and the consequences thereof), have either been alcoholics who I know to drive drunk or lawyers who defend drunk drivers.

      32% (13,491) of all traffic fatalities (41,059) in 2007 involved alcohol-impaired operators. But it is highly unlikely that 32% of all operators are alcohol-impaired. [www.nhtsa.dot.gov]

      So yes, anything that rats out drunk drivers does look heavenly. Driving impaired is inexcusable.

      @little stripes: You honestly don’t think that a PILOT who has even one drink doesn’t belong in prison?

      No, that’s absurd. As long as pilots follow the 8-hour and 0.04% BAC restrictions, it’s fine with me. (On the road, there’s no significant increase in incidents from a BAC of 0.00% to 0.04%. Once you pass 0.06%, however, things start to change.)

      It’s not like they need to be sober at all times in their life to be sober while working.

  17. animeredith says:

    Wow, talk about the one job that you never want to show up to drunk.

  18. skippywasserman says:

    Back in my day you needed a few before you felt safe enough getting in one of those things.

    Then again, smoking was cool and sophisticated and recommended by doctors.

  19. AvDub says:

    What with all those stats about flying being safer than driving, maybe this guy just wanted to level the playing field a bit?

    The Drudge Report beat you to this one guys ;-)

  20. Ben_Q2 says:

    I really do not think the company has this in place to call the Police. To much bad press as you can now see. More then likely someone called it in. I do know that the police does have a code that changes all the time so no one would know what it is.

    Code ??-???; Officer lock their ass in the back, send someone to open the door.

    Before you ask I dated a officer that had to go and open the door. I ask what does that one mean?

  21. Maglet says:

    Scary stuff. My family and I are planning our family vacation for this year and we’re strongly considering road-tripping it! This is just one of the reasons. We have a great chance of making it down to Orlando and I’m sure my husband and I won’t be drinking.

    Is that what people are paying for? For the pilots to drink, but to stay under the limit? They shouldn’t be drinking at ALL. But who am I and what do I know? Nothing. Right.

    • Ein2015 says:

      @Maglet: You’re paying for the TSA to steal your things, contaminate your stuff, and put you through pain. After that, some of your money goes towards buying things like water on a plane… because the long and unexplained wait on the plane will make you thirsty. You might be paying (out of your own pocket now) for a hotel room when the flight gets mysteriously canceled for weather.

      Seriously, alcohol is the least of your worries right now and you should be pushing for far better things, like a half-way decent system!

      • little stripes says:

        @Ein2015: Er, I’d say drunk pilots are a high, high priority. Since, you know, a drunk pilot could kill THOUSANDS of people.

        • shepd says:

          @little stripes:

          Sorry, not ragging on you. However, the worst aircraft disaster in history killed 583 people, and injured 61. We’ve not surpassed 1,000 yet. ;-) But with enough stupidity, it could happen.

          I suppose you could point at 9/11, however, I’m only considering unintentional accidents, not purposeful destruction.

          /me needs to stop watching Mayday. Although the show did teach me one useful thing: The TSA’s policy of making it difficult to get a steward to talk to people in the cockpit is going to cause a serious accident someday. Many, many, many times passengers (and occasionally stewards) notice major trouble with the aircraft that the pilots can’t know about.

          • Orv says:

            @shepd: Somehow I think if a passenger points out an obvious problem with the aircraft, the steward is going to go against the rules and report the problem to the pilot. No one is going to risk his/her life just to follow TSA regs.

            • shepd says:

              I wish it were true! :-(

              Maybe all the shows I’ve seen (and wikipedia pages I’ve read) aren’t representative of the real state of the industry, but even before any TSA regs stewards would ignore/play down issues not just to the passengers (understandable) but it appears that doing this puts a mental block in their heads not to inform the pilots until the issue is way out of hand.

      • Maglet says:


        My halfway decent system is road-tripping it. These systems are so far out of whack it’s unreal. I don’t know that there is anything I can do besides not using the airlines. It sucks, but I’m okay with it. For now.

        • Orv says:

          @Maglet: That’s your choice. But keep in mind that, statistically, you’re putting yourself at a far higher risk of death by driving than you do by flying. In spite of all the problems with our airline system, there were *no* deaths caused by airline accidents in 2007. So far in 2008, there’s been a grand total of one fatality. By contrast, over 100 people *per day* die in car accidents.

          • Maglet says:


            Yeah, yeah… I got it. Come to think of it, I’ve never flown United. BUT, I’m sure this kind of thing isn’t only a problem with United Airlines. Air travel has become trying, in my opinion. I hope it gets better… I LOVE to travel.

            What’s so hard about not drinking? Are some pilots alcoholics? Maybe they should have to blow into a device in order to get the plane to start!

    • jonmason1977 says:

      @Maglet: If I was flying a giant metal can full of people at hundreds of miles an hour, I’d need a F**King drink too…

  22. MayorBee says:

    At least he wasn’t looking at sweet, sweet pornography.

  23. Orv says:

    If I remember right, the FAA rule is you can’t fly as a required crew member until eight hours after the last drink, and there can’t be any residual effects (i.e., if you’ve got a bad hangover, you shouldn’t be flying.) I’d have to dig out my copy of the FARs to find the exact wording, but that’s the gist of it.

    Interestingly, it’s also illegal under FAA regulations to allow a visibly intoxicated passenger to get on a plane. So when an airline gate agent tells you you’re too drunk to get on the plane, they’re just following the law.

  24. jdhuck says:

    I’m too drunk to fly too.

  25. econobiker says:

    I just watched the movie “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad World” (free on Comcast on-demand) and this story reminded me of the Jim Bacus pilot character who Buddy Ebson and Mickie Roony convince to fly them on their race to the goal. The character of a sloshed rich guy pilot is even more over the top today than even when that movie was filmed.

    BTW that movie is great for children as it is pretty much a live action cartoon due to the slapstick comedy plus no curse words, nudity, or adult references…

  26. Pylon83 says:

    The general FAA rule is 8 hours “bottle to throttle”. Some airlines have stricter policies written into their operations manuals, which effectively become FAA rules, as the FAA approves the manual making it binding. The FAA rule also says if it’s been over 8 hours, and your BAC is still over .04, or if you are still feeling the effects of alcohol, you cannot fly. I’m not sure if the airlines implement stricter regulations here. I suppose what I’m getting at is that the pilot may or may not have actually been “Drunk” as much as “over the limit”. There aren’t really enough facts in any of the stories to determine whether or not he blew over a .04 (or the UK equivalent). I am in absolutely no way advocating flying under the influence, but I’m merely trying to remove the image of a stumbling drunk pilot getting into a cockpit that many people get in their minds, and then determine that air travel is “risky”. That said, the deterrents in place to protect against flying intoxicated are very, very strong. Not only is it essentially a guaranteed revocation of your licenses (read: livelihood), but also a nearly guaranteed jail sentence. Relatively, it’s very rare that a pilot would fly over the limit (or within the time limit), and even if they did, the redundancy created by a (presumably sober) co-pilot mitigates most of the danger of a pilot who might be altered by the alcohol. The entire point of my diatribe here is that these things get blown way out of proportion regarding the true danger posed, especially when not all of the facts are presented (BAC, etc.).

  27. strathmeyer says:

    “Nowadays, those things pretty much fly themselves.”

    I love how everyone is so freaked out by this situations, as if they never realized people in authority also had the luxury of personal choice. And that’s why they shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

  28. Tolgak says:

    As a student in the Aeronautical Science (flight) degree program at Embry-Riddle, I will give you a bit of information that is just horrifying.

    In many of our classes (including non-flight related classes), the discussion of alcohol comes up many times and in many different contexts. In almost every one of these tangents, there are people in the Aero Sci program who express extreme discomfort at the notion that they wont be allowed to drink for days at a time. These are people that are training to become your future airline, commercial, and military pilots. There are students here who cancel their flights regularly due to hangovers and drunkenness. I wouldn’t be too worried about such people because most are too stupid to earn the degree. The ones that do pass, however, will be future statistics.

    I don’t think airlines can get too strict on their alcohol policies for their flight crews. I enjoy a drink every once in a while, as do most adults. But 24 or even 48 hour dry periods are more than reasonable for anyone entrusted to hundreds of passengers. I certainly wouldn’t mind going dry for weeks if I had to, and that should be the attitude shared among pilots.

    I think the reason that many kids feel this way about alcohol is their parents. My parents used a bit of reverse psychology on me and encouraged that I drink with them as a kid. It always worked, because I never wanted to and never did put my lips on a bottle until a few years ago. Even so, I don’t drink to get drunk. I respect alcohol for its potential and don’t push it too far. The same principle applies to guns and even driving.

    If more parents would learn proper alcohol education, less people would be dependent, and airlines would even more rarely have to exercise their policies on their employees.

    • Pylon83 says:

      A 48hr “dry” period is getting to the point of ridiculous. 24 is understandable, given some peoples potential to over-indulge. But to require more than that is unnecessary. I rarely drink, and when I do it’s not terribly heavily. I am also a flight instructor, and me and my fellow instructors occasionally went out or had parties, and everyone knew that if they had to fly the next morning, you stopped drinking 8hrs before the flight. Those who had to fly usually kept the indulgence to a minimum (2-3 drinks). Most people who go into aviation are generally pretty responsible. That said, and not to disparage your school, most of the people I know who went to Riddle or any of the other “Aviation” colleges did tend to be a lot more irresponsible in general. Cocky, reckless and ignorant are words I would use to describe many of them. Unfortunately, you are right than many of them will be future airline pilots. However, I still feel like the rules currently in place are more than sufficient, so long as they are followed.

  29. Corporate-Shill says:

    Unfortunately this is nothing new.

    Police Officers, Teachers, Ministers, Pilots, Surgeons, Heavy machine operators, Truck Drivers, Lawyers, Judges, Nurses, Pharmacists and School Bus Drivers all have been cited for drinking on the job or just prior to performing their jobs.

    Some are alcoholics. Some just enjoyed a night out on the town.

    Nothing new here.

  30. emilymarion333 says:

    Gee..I am so glad I get to fly home tomorrow on United…

  31. DanKelley98 says:

    Who could possibly blame the pilot???

    I’ve given up flying the airline whenever possible…in my opinion, its been poorly run for years.

  32. ArmyCats says:

    Reminds me of this…

  33. ZaleAtreus says:

    I heard about this, and he ended up being cleared after the blood test.

    Apparently a low carb diet can produce a false positive on a breath test. The limits are so tight with pilots he got popped, but driving standards are more lax so people on Atkins can blow slightly elevated and still be within the legal limit.

  34. SynMonger says:

    Why so serious?

  35. Anonymous says:

    As a commercial airline pilot I can assure you that this type of behavior is extremely rare, and most definitly frowned upon within the pilot group. You need not concern yourself regarding the safety of your next flight to that vacation destination, business trip, etc. This act tarnishes the image of our industry at a time when we can least afford it. I appologize on behalf of all the hard working, professional, responsible people who make our mode of travel the safest in the world.