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Another Look at Alcohol

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Wing, Nosewheel, Whatever
Dec 19, 2001
I know. I'm doing it again but the most recent discussion about situations involving alcohol left a few things that I think are important out. My book on aviation interviews does not so I will quote it here. This is not to take the most important aspect of any alcohol related situation away from the other discussion. The airplane MUST NOT go anywhere until all discrepancies are resolved.

You will note that there are four questions raised here. This first installment deals only with the first one. Others will follow. I have a busy trip this week but I think I'll have time to post the details on the other ones from the road.

Alcohol related problems are not the hot button issue that they were in 1990 but I'd be willing to bet that not too many airline interviews fail to touch on it. It's an important problem to have resolution skills for because no matter how the question is put to you, the scenario probably actually happened. This is one reason why you see so many variations on the same theme when you hear about how these questions are asked.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind about alcohol related transgressions, whether they occur in a car, a boat, or an airplane they are CRIMINAL matters. In aviation, that means a NASA report ISN'T going to get you off the hook. It also means that when an accusation of wrongdoing involving alcohol is levied the accused is immediately accorded Constitutional rights that do not apply if you bust an altitude or something. A standard of proof is also engendered and it is this fact that makes this area particularly ticklish.

PROVING that a person has committed an alcohol related offense relies on demonstrating that they consumed alcohol and that it entered their bloodstream. That makes it not only a legal matter but also a medical and clinical matter. Unless you're a doctor, a lawyer, and a lab technician you cannot rely on YOUR chosen profession to make judgements that will stand up in court. You may have suspicions but they will only be part of the proof necessary. The real proof will come from a medical assessment of the offender's condition.

So what am I getting at here? My point is that when you have an encounter with a pilot who is about to go fly and who you think is intoxicated or otherwise impaired the accusation you will be making is one of criminal wrongdoing that you will either have to prove or face the consequences of having been incorrect. Does that mean you do nothing and cower in fear of being wrong? Not at all. What it means is that you find a way to bring the matter up so that it is NOT an accusation that you can't prove to an acceptable legal standard.

It is important to note that these situations are not isolated to scenarios involving the crewmembers of your aircraft in airline interviews. In fact, the reality of day-to-day airline flying is that you will encounter many, MANY drunk or impaired passengers without EVER running across a drunk airline employee, let alone a drunk pilot. Dealing with Intoxicated passengers is potentially a much more difficult challenge because the same standards of proof are involved and civil lawsuits against the airline and against you personally lie on the other side of being wrong.

As you read the excerpt form my book, remember that scenario questions, as always, should be treated as though they are incomplete versions of the story. There is more you will need to know in just about every case. One of the things being evaluated is your ability to THINK like a flight crewmember - particularly as a Captain. Think about your resources and use them to help you arrive at a decision and a course of action. Ask carefully crafted questions that will develop the situation into a much clearer case in short order. Now, to see how this applies to alcohol, please read on!

Situations Involving Alcohol

What would you do if a situation arose in which there was some question about the legality of the crew flying a particular trip because alcohol was involved in some way? Situations such as these can be very sticky, particularly if the situation is one in which one crewmember must confront another.

The most important thing to keep in mind when a question of this nature is posed is that the situation must be defused in the most positive way you can think of. If at all possible the solution should involve not only a solution involving the crewmember but also a solution for the company so the trip can continue. Let’s take a look at the following questions in detail to see how to solve the problem each presents.

1. At 22:25 on the first day of a three day trip you notice that the captain you are flying with is in the bar drinking. You are scheduled to depart at 06:15 the next day. What would you do?

2. On the first leg of a three day trip you climb into the cockpit and begin to notice that your partner smells of liquor. What are your actions as the First Officer? As the Captain?

3. As you greet passengers at the aircraft door one of them appears to be slightly intoxicated. What are your actions as the First Officer? As the Captain?

4. As you greet passengers at the aircraft door one of them says, "Hey, I know you! You were just in the bar! I saw you there." What are your actions as the First Officer? As the Captain?

At 22:25 on the first day of a three day trip you notice that the captain you are flying with is in the bar drinking. You are scheduled to depart at 06:15 the next day. What would you do?

If you do a little math in your head you will quickly realize that this time frame does not allow you the necessary eight hours between consumption of alcohol and operating an aircraft. You have a serious potential problem here.

It would be easy to assume that the interviewer is asking you this question to see how you would deal with confronting a fellow employee who needs to be dealt with and to a certain extent that’s true. However, another thing they need to know is how you arrive at the decision to confront the person.

As you formulate an approach to this situation the first thing you really need to know is if you truly have a problem. Here’s what you do know. You are standing outside a hotel bar basically staring in disbelief at the person you’re flying with. What you don’t know is what the other crewmember knows about the situation. One possible explanation is that your departure time has been changed and the eight hour window has shifted. Another possibility is that he has been removed from the trip for one of any number of reasons and the limitation doesn’t apply to him anymore.

No matter what the truth of the situation you must first determine that there is a problem. One way to do this is to approach the other crewmember and ask something like, "Do you know something that I don’t know about our departure time?" where the conversation goes from here is dependent upon what the other pilot says in response. Obviously, if there is a logical explanation for what you’ve seen, the situation is over and you need do nothing else.

If it turns out that you really do have a legality issue brewing you must then determine whether the other person is willing to go along with the suggestion that the drinking be stopped immediately. You will need to ask this gently but firmly, making it clear that there is no room for alternative decisions. The drinking stops now or further steps will be taken.

But what steps can you take? Well, that depends somewhat on whether you’re the First Officer or the Captain. If you’re the Captain you have the authority of your position to fall back on. Even though the issue of safety is the responsibility of both pilots, being the Captain gives you a way to justify your position that is beyond question. If you’re the First Officer you have a little bit more difficult task ahead but both crewmembers basically should follow the same path.

Begin by suggesting that the other crewmember call in sick for the trip. Most crew schedulers would appreciate the time and advance notice that calling in the night before would afford them in finding another pilot. If that doesn’t work explain that you will call in and refuse to fly the trip. Be sure to make it clear that you intend to explain exactly why you are refusing to fly. This will put the onus on the offending pilot to do something or face the consequences of being turned in for violating the FARs. If need be, you can make this a more potent inducement by putting a time limit on the decision. Five minutes is generally adequate.

Note that throughout the entire process, the escalation of the challenge posed to the other crewmember is smooth and steady. An approach that ratchets up the tension and the stakes too quickly will inevitably result in a confrontation that will not likely solve the problem.

More to come soon - this week, I think!

Just wanted to say 'Hi' TIS ... I hadn't seen you since I've been back. You've been a tremendous help over the last couple years of flying again. If you're ever in GSO lemme know and I'll buy ya' one.

Thich Minh Thong

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