In a mockery to safety of fare paying passengers, couple of aircrew were found drunk while reporting for duty on new year eve. This included one first officer and three non-flying crew, employed by three of the private commercial airline companies in India .
As per DGCA Rule 24 of Aircraft Rules, all aircrew are to abstain from performing aviation duties under influence or not to have consumed it in the past twelve hours . Based on this rule, action was taken against fifty seven erring pilots, including termination of services of 11 between January 2009 and November 2010 .
Indian authorities can draw lessons from the first publicized arrest of the crew of Northwest Airlines flight 650 on 01 March 1990 . More importantly, airlines must keep aside their commercial interests by overlooking drunkenness amongst their aircrew. The problem of alcohol (and other substance) abuse may exist amongst aircrew. Such aircrew may need help – timely and actively, both of de-addiction counseling and a sympathetic management for long term rehabilitation.
The resurrection of Lyle Prouse, the Captain of that Northwest airline flight is evidence enough that deaddiction therapy (and its Twelve Step Programme) is effective , and with adequate social support, aircrew can be rehabilitated to remain productive members of the society. The Birds of a Feather is consistently doing a yeomen service of deaddiction related work amongst aircrew . However before anything radical happens to prevent flying drunk, there is a need for change in the public perception and attitudes of the supervisors and safety operators. They must not see the malaise of alcoholism as a social problem afflicting an erring individual but as a ‘disease’. Indeed alcoholism is a disease which can be cured . ‘Final Approach’, a book by Lyle Prouse is a testimony of the problem and the cure of this Janus-like disease – alcoholism [8, 9]
However a sympathetic attitude towards a ‘pilot with drinking problem’, as expressed above, has nothing to with justifying him compromising the aviation safety. No conscientious aircrew, captain or co-pilot, should be operating under the influence. And if one is found ‘drunk on duty’, the punishment should be exemplary. Interestingly, DGCA had a policy of grounding for three months on first offense of being under influence and cancellation of license after the second offense . However waking up to the stark realities of criminal culpability of jeopardizing the safety of the passengers, DGCA now intends to pursue a policy of zero tolerance on this vital issue of aviation safety. As per the proposed amendments to Rule 24 of Aircraft Rules, the drunk pilot shall be imprisoned for one year or fined INR 500,000 .
Yet this change may prove a lame duck amendment since only those found drunk during pre-flight breath analyser screening [11, 12] are liable for criminal action but not those who may consume alcohol during flight. Surreptitious consumption behind the closed cockpit doors, especially on international flights, remains a possibility for those addicted . Such half-hearted rules and still poorer implementation may well be compromising the safety of the innocent passengers!
8. Lyle Prouse
Acknowledgment Image courtesy Freedigitalphotos.net