I’m gettin’ drunk on a plane

Actually, I’m not the one gettin’ drunk on a plane. But your pilot might be.

On August 8, four drunken members of an airBaltic charter crew showed up for a flight from Oslo to Crete. The pilot, co-pilot and two flight attendants reportedly began drinking at 3 p.m. the day before the flight. The next morning, four hours before the flight, the group was still buying alcohol. Thanks to an anonymous tip, officers were waiting for them when they arrived at the airport.

Talk about a ground stop.

Last week, the co-pilot was sentenced to six months in jail, just 10 days after the crime (talk about quick justice!). The co-pilot’s blood alcohol level was measured at 1.35 mg per milliliter of blood, almost seven times the legal limit of .02 mg. The flight attendants were sentenced to 60 and 45 days in jail and the pilot will be sentenced on September 17.

Do I even need to ask the question this week? “Is this right?” is what I normally ask. But there’s no question about this one. Drunk pilots are wrong. And dangerous. And alarming. And possibly deadly.

Most pilots are professional. Most do their jobs well and care about what they do. But there are the occasional bonehead examples of pilots behaving badly. Some of the more memorable:

In 2009, two Northwest Airlines pilots missed Minneapolis and went radio silent, causing great panic. When they reemerged 150 miles from where they should be, they claimed they were distracted during a heated conversation.

Indian airline IndiGo employed Captain Parminder Kaur Gulati. After she made a rocky landing in Goa then touched down with the nose wheel instead of the rear landing gear on the flight back, it was discovered she was not actually a pilot. She forged papers in order to get her pilot’s license.

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A 2011 Chautauqua Airlines flight from North Carolina to New York endured a terror scare after the pilot left the cockpit. When he didn’t return and a passenger knocked on the cockpit door, the co-pilot radioed air traffic control to report the pilot had disappeared and someone with a “thick foreign accent” who knew the secret password to enter the cockpit was trying to get in. Just as the co-pilot was about to make an emergency landing, the pilot broke out of the bathroom (where he was stuck) and reassured all that the passenger was attempting to help him.

And then there’s the one I wrote about a few weeks ago. Flushing bullets down the toilet is never a good idea. Never.

Again, not all pilots are reckless or prone to bad decisions. But what can we do as consumers to give ourselves a better shot at a professional pilot? Not much.

It’s the roll of the dice. We buy a ticket, we board a plane, we are assigned a pilot. Not much we can do, but there are a few things.

First, buy a ticket on a major airline. If you buy on a regional, their pilots often don’t have the training and experience of the pilots of major airlines.

Second, book a noon or early afternoon flight. In theory, if your pilot has been drinking the night before, this will hopefully give him or her time to sleep it off, unless they’re drinking all night like the airBaltic crew.

Third, buy a plane and hire your own pilot. Then you can know how good the pilot is and quiz him or her each time you fly. Admittedly, not doable for most of us.

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Fourth, get your pilot’s license. If you’re flying, at least you’d know how tired or drunk or crazy the pilot is.

Again, there is not much you can do to improve your chances of getting a good pilot. We can all agree that drunk or bad-decision-making pilots can be dangerous. When we board a flight, in some ways we blindly trust the airline and the pilots. Your odds of arriving safely are actually very good. But nothing in life is certain.

When I fly, is there is anything I can do about the sanity or decision-making of my pilot.

Kent Lawrence

Kent Lawrence is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He is a husband, father to two, executive pastor, travel enthusiast and sometime writer. You can contact him at kent@kentlawrence.com.

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