Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Bottle before throttle: Do Indian pilots have a drinking problem?

This weekend, one of Air India's most senior pilots was found to be too drunk to fly his flight, a long-haul service to London.
Right when this senior pilot was being declared unfit to fly (this, by the way, was the second time he was caught drunk before a flight), an Air India plane that had already taken off was recalled to the Delhi airport after ground staff realised that one of the pilots had 'missed' his mandatory pre-flight breathalyser test.

Both the pilots have been grounded. Captain Arvind Kathpalia, the senior pilot caught drunk for the second time, cannot fly for the next three years.

Air India, the embattled national carrier known to have some of the most experienced pilots, has managed -- once again -- to get some really bad press.

But, is the problem really that bad? Are Indian pilots -- especially those flying Air India -- essentially drunkards who -- as aviation agencies in the West like to say -- hit the bottle before the throttle?
The numbers certainly make for alarming headlines.

At least 12 Air India pilots have already been caught drunk before their flights just this year. In October, Air India told India Today TV that 10 of its pilots had been caught drunk before flights.

Add the two pilots from Sunday and that number goes to 12. And, the year isn't over yet.

Speaking broadly, more than two dozen pilots have been found to be drunk before flights in the last few years.

In July 2016, the Ministry of Civil Aviation told Parliament that almost 100 pilots -- across all Indian airlines -- were found drunk in a three-year period between 2013 and 2015 (43 in 2015, 26 in 2014 and 30 in 2013).
But, why do Indian pilots keep getting caught drunk before flights with such frequencies?

Well, you can blame -- or be grateful for -- India's aviation laws, which are among the strictest in the world when it comes to pilots flying drunk.

For example, regulatory body Directorate General of Civil Aviation has an absolute zero-tolerance for pilots being drunk -- there, literally, cannot be a drop of alcohol in the pilots' bodies.

This is tested using breathalysers, which give an indication of how much alcohol is present in pilots' blood.

Even a miniscule Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) reading of 0.01 per cent (which indicates that there is 10 milligram of alcohol for every 100ml of blood) can make a pilot unfit for flying.

By contrast, the legal limit for driving drunk in India is 0.03 i.e. 30mg for every 100ml of blood. Anything over that and you'll be facing a jail term.
Two pints of light beer should be enough to make you too drunk to drive. But then again, how much alcohol there will be in your blood depends on your body weight, gender and metabolism.

And Indian pilots? Forget pints of beer. They can't risk a teaspoon.

In fact, Indian laws governing pilots' alcohol levels are stricter than those in the West.
12/11/18 Dev Goswami/India Today