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Have one for the runway; how Transportation Department policies add new meaning to the word "red-eye." (drunk pilots)

How Transportation Department pollicies add new meaning to the world red-eye

On August 1, 1982, Larry W Morrison, a pilot for Northwest Airlines, was scheduled to copilot an early-morning flight out of Las Vegas. He'd been in the city for two nights, having copiloted a flight in from Minneapolis on July 30. He was staying at the Hilton Flamingo Hotel during the layover.

During the 30 hours he was in Las Vegas, Morrison was not inimune to the city's charms. He drank a beer, two double vodkas, a liter of wine, and two pints of vodka straight from the bottle. He finished off the last quarter-pint of vodka as soon as he woke up at 4 a. m.-less than four hours before he was scheduled to climb back in the cockpit.

As his flight crew gathered in the lobby of the Hilton Flamingo, Morrison had John Dill, the flight's captain, paged. I'm too sick to fly, he told Dill. Dill called the airline's scheduling office to try to find a new copilot, but he was told that no one was available so early in the morning. If Morrison couldn't fly, the flight would have to be canceled.

It didn't take long for airline officials to change their minds. As the flight crew boarded the plane, the Northwest station agent at the airport noticed Morrison wasn't looking too good. He told Donald Nelson, Northwest's general manager in Minneapolis, who ordered the plane to stay on the ground. But by the time Nelson's order was received, Northwest Flight 81, a Boeing 727 with 73 passengers and six crew members-including copilot Larry W Morrison-was already in the air.

Northwest, having found a copilot, took Morrison off the plane during a stopover in San Francisco, and gave him a blood test. Morrison's blood alcohol level was 0.13 percent, well above the 0.04 percent level that the Federal Aviation Administration defines as being under the influence. Northwest fired Morrison for breaking the FAAs, as well as its own, rules against alcohol abuse. Now, after six years of court battles, the airline has been forced to take him back,

It boggles the mind. Here is a pilot who had slipped deep into the clutches of alcoholism, and neither the FAA nor his airline knew it. When the airline finally wised up and fired him, it couldn't make its own decision stick.

So how do we keep the Larry Morrisons from risking our lives? Increasingly, transportation officials have been moving toward random testing-giving a surprise urinalysis or blood test to catch abusers and to deter others from getting smashed. Just after the November elections, the Department of Transportation announced that it would require commercial air operators and other transportation companies to test workers in safety-related jobs for five kinds of illegal drugs.

A wise move. While few people have had their lives threatened by intoxicated reservation clerks, drunk pilots are a cause of greater concern. But the new DOT plan wouldn't have kept Larry Morrison's boozy breath out of the cockpit that summer morning. It doesn't call for testing for alcohol or for tranquilizers, muscle relaxants, or any other prescription sedatives that can affect a pilot's reflexes and judgment just as severely as illegal drugs. The DOT's failure to ground drunk pilots is a classic illustration of poor regulation. It also illustrates the failure of courts and unions to protect our safety.

Take my word, please

It's not that the department is so lax that it lets you fly a plane with a beer in one hand. If you were to apply for a job as an airline pilot today, you'd be presented with a set of rules on alcohol and drugs, legal as well as illegal. You'd be told of Federal Aviation Regulation 91.11, the FAAs ban on flying within eight hours after drinking alcohol, while under the influence of alcohol, or "while using any drug that affects faculties in any way contrary to safety." An airline's own rules may go beyond that; Northwest, for example, won't let you fly within 24 hours of your last drink.

These restrictions make sense, but when it comes to enforcement there's a problem. Right now most airlines will test you, Joe Pilot, for alcohol or drugs before you are hired. But when the FAA is handing out licenses, it isn't nearly so fussy. Instead of conducting tests itself, it relies on doctors certified as experts in "aviation medicine." (This is not such a big deal; many physicians have such training.) So for Joe Pilot this means finding a physician certified in aviation medicine. The doctor does give Joe an exam, but he's not required to administer a blood or liver function test for drugs and alcohol. Instead, he takes Joe's word for it. The pilot just fills out a form and hands it to the doctor The forms are unambiguous: items to be checked include "currently use any medication (including eyedropsy drug or narcotic habit," and "excessive drinking habit." Once you've filled out the form and the examiner has approved it, you're set.

If, on the off chance the FAA stumbles onto something that suggests you've lied on your form, then you might be asked for a clarification. But as Dr. Keith Russell, manager of the medical review branch of the FAA's Civil Aeromedical Institute in Oklahoma City, says: "Generally, we have to rely on what the pilot has put down, particularly because he has signed the form." Oh, well, as long as he signs it!

Like most systems of self-enforcement, this one doesn't work. In 1987, the Department of Transportation inspector general's office checked the National Driver's Register to find out whether any FAAcertified pilots had forgotten to mention any drunkdriving convictions under "record of traffic convictions." Nearly 8,000 pilots had overlooked that little detail. That's 8,000 convicted drunk drivers with pilots licenses. Worse, there were 10,300 pilots in all with DWI convictions listed in the registry-meaning the FAA certified more than 2,000 pilots with full knowledge of their drunk-drivi ng records. Not surprisingly, the inspector general of the DOT criticized the FAA for relying on the honor system and for not having set objective standards, even for DWI convictions, on how to revoke an alcoholic pilot's license.

Having taken its lumps from the inspector general, the FAA seems to be getting tougher. It's drafting rules to allow it to revoke licenses of alcoholic pilots, and it's working on a system to examine driving records to check for DWI convictions. But for prescription tranquilizers and sedatives, the FAA is still content to rely on the old scout's honor.

What to do instead? It's pretty hard to get past the honor system problem-except through testing. Again, pilots for most of the major airlines can already expect a test when they are hired. And they can be somewhat deterred by testing when supervisors feel there is probable cause-although this assumes that supervisors have the time and the knowledge to spot an alcoholic and the gumption to order him to take a test. But with the exception of Eastern and United, most airlines still don't test for prescription tranquilizers or sedatives. And even if they did test for alcohol and illegal drugs, they might run into another problem: the courts.

The Air Line Pilots Association didn't waste any time coming to Larry Morrison's defense. Shortly after the firing, ALPA appealed on his behalf to Northwest's own in-house arbitration board with an interesting defense: Morrison's recklessness, the union said, was "the unavoidable consequence" of alcoholism"One of the hallmarks [of alcoholism] is denial," explained John Mazor, a spokesman for the pilot's union, "and that is a symptom of the disease just as cirrhosis of the liver is a symptom of the disease." In other words, ol' Larry wasn't reckless on purpose, so don't fire him. Northwest's policy, by contrast, left no room for excuses: let the pilot keep his job if he admits to his alcoholism and goes through rehabilitation. The arbitration board, however, didn't see it that way. It ordered Northwest to rehire Morrison.

Then the courts stepped in. First, a federal district court sided with Northwest, saying that arbitrators had no authority to second-guess Morrison's contract, which clearly stated that anyone who walks into a cockpit less than 24 hours after drinking can be fired. But a federal appeals court then reversed that decision, saying the federal district court had no standing to second-guess the arbitrators. And the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Morrison is now back at the controls.

ALPA insists that alcoholism should be treated just like any other disease, in which denial is a symptom just like a rash or a tumor. This is not an entirely specious argument, of course. But the question is one of priorities: the safety of the pilot's job vs. the safety of the traveling public.

Take a 'lude, dude

From 1978 through 1987, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated 6,175 fatal air accidents. Of these, 33 were classified as drug-related, while 299 were alcohol-related. (To be fair, keep in mind that no major airline accident since 1964 has been found to be alcohol - or drug-related . Of course, that may be partly due to the fact that Larry Morrison didn't crash.) That so many of these crashes involved drunk pilots flying private planes is hardly reassuring. As has happened several times-the PSA catastrophe over San Diego in 1978 comes to mind-those relatively unsupervised private pilots can fly into you even when they're sober.

What about prescription drugs and crashes? Amazingly, the FAA keeps no records on pilots using potentially impairing prescription medications while flying. It would make sense for the FAA to keep tabs as well on how many pilots' license applications have been denied or delayed because of the use of a potentially dangerous medication. The National Transportation Safety Board seems just as incurious. Its statistics on drug-related accidents don't distinguish between legal and illegal drugs.

Given the lack of evidence, why should any passenger worry about the pilot taking too many prescription drugs? They wouldn't let a guy fly who's been knocking back codeine and Valium, right? Unfortunately, the implications of a 1985 Delta Airlines crash, and the issues that have surfaced in the resulting liability trial, won't soothe any anxieties.

Captain Edward M"Ted" Connors was in command of Delta Flight 191 on August 2, 1985, when, on final approach to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, his L-1011 new underneath a small thunderstorm hovering over the edge of the runway. A microburst-a violent torrent of wind and raincaught the plane and slammed it to the ground. The crash killed 137 people, including Connors. From that day on, friends and associates have wondered how Connors could have allowed the airliner to fly into such a violent storm-unless it took him and the rest of the flight crew by surprise. But how could he have been surprised'? They remember him as a cautious, dedicated pilot who scrupulously avoided weather that could jeopardize his passengers' safety.

Then the crash victim's attorneys subpoenaed his medical records. Connors, as it turned out, had filled at least 15 prescriptions for the powerful tranquilizer Stelazine during the three years prior to the crash. Whether he took any pills the day of the crash, or whether the drug would have so fried his brain that he couldn't recognize a thunderstorm, is an issue that divided the medical experts who testified at the trial. What is indisputable is that Connors never bothered to tell the FAA about any of the prescriptions, even though the honor system required him to do so. Had he and 136 other people not died, it's doubtful that his use of Stelazine would ever have been uncovered.

Is it possible that no one warned Connors that it might not be safe to take Stelazine while flying an airliner full of people? It's very possible. The FAA doesn't even have a list of banned drugs to hand out to its own medical examiners, let alone to the airline pilots who show enough initiative to check which drugs are safe and which are not. Instead, said Russell, the FAA doctor, when the pilot has a question about a particular medication he is expected to ask the medical examiner. Yet even that doesn't always work. Connors was regularly certified by a Miami medical examiner, Dr. Charles Mummery, who gave him prescriptions for all kinds of drugs that could leave you too drowsy to do the dishes, let alone fly a plane: the sedatives Valium and Dalmane, and the muscle relaxant Anaprox. In his deposition, Mummery suggested that he isn't the only medical examiner who takes such liberties. "There are a lot of different things taken under a variety of different circumstances," he said. "and. . .I don't know that we obey the letter of the law all the time about these things."

Bad breath

What makes the problem of drugs and alcohol in the skies even more infuriating is that there was a way out of the mess. In 1987, Senators John Danforth and Ernest Hollings cosponsored a bill requiring random testing for alcohol and controlled substances. The bill died in a Senate-House conference committee, leaving enforcement up to the Department of Transportation.

The senators' aides, who declined to be identified, were not exactly impressed by the DOT's commitment. One told me about a meeting he and other senate aides had with DOT staff members just before the bill went down in flames. The Dar staff members said they liked it-except for the alcohol testing. They asked the Senate aides to take it out, saying it would be "too difficult to administer."

It's a familiar excuse, and a flimsy one. The FAAs official reason for not supporting random alcohol testing, as published in the Federal Register, was that the ineffectiveness of a urinalysis alcohol test would mean that a blood test and breathalyzer test would have to be administered-making the testing program too expensive. Not that drawing blood or breath for an alcohol test has ever been a problem for the Federal Railroad Administration-or, for that matter, for the airlines themselves. (Neither have random testing yet, but they do have probable cause testing for alcohol.) "Also," the FAA explanation continues "the blood test method generally is considered an invasive procedure and would not be favorably received by those being tested." As opposed to, say, drug testing?

Why would the FAA resist alcohol testing? Chalk it up to a narrow mind-set that tolerates legal drugs but not illegal ones. "The reason we're testing for illegal drugs is that we know they shouldn't be using [illegal] drugs at any time," said Dr. Barton Pakull, chief psychiatrist at the FAA's Office of Aviation Medicine-as if that's what the airline passengers are really worried about. ("I can't believe we just flew into this mountain. I wonder what that pilot's on'" "Yeah. Hope it's not anything illegal .")

That there has been no clamoring for alcohol testing is another example of political gridlock in Washington. Aside from a handful of public interest groups, there's simply no lobby banging the drums for more testing. Certainly the Air Line Pilots Association is not going to demand, "Dammit, if you're going to test us for drugs, test us for everything." Fortunately, Danforth and Hollings have reintroduced their random testing bill. And Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner, a former prosecutor, seems to have little tolerance for the have-one-for-the-runway attitude. In a speech to FAA employees at Chicago's O'Hare airport in February, Skinner declared: "We're not going to let cocaine users or alcohol users in the cockpit."

That's the kind of thinking the Department of Transportation needs-and should have had all along. If random testing is to succeed, it's got to cover Coors as well as cocaine, Stelazine as well as speed. The FAA's Dr. Pakull defends the current program this"I think you can understand from an administrative standpoint that the perception of safety is as important as safety itself." Then again, there's something to be said for safety itself.
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Author:Nather, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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