Pilots' arrests a `wake-up call,' expert says

FAA is taking suggestions on its drug, alcohol policy

July 08, 2002|By Eric Malnic and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Eric Malnic and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The arrest of two America West pilots last week on suspicion of trying to fly while drunk illustrates a continuing problem that requires a new crackdown by the Federal Aviation Administration, a noted researcher on alcohol-related transportation accidents says.

"What happened in Miami is a wake-up call," said Barry M. Sweedler, president of the International Council on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety and former chief of safety recommendations for the National Transportation Safety Board.

"The FAA did take action in the early 1990s," Sweedler said. "But they need to reinforce the steps taken, because if we don't, we'll end up with tragedy."

Government statistics indicate that very few professional pilots seem to have problems with alcohol. Only nine tested positive in random checks last year by the Federal Aviation Administration. But if drinking problems are rare, so are many other safety issues involving commercial aviation. Indeed, improving safety is a process of continually focusing on rare events to make them even less likely.

The FAA defended its drug and alcohol screening program, and spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency is ready to consider suggestions on how to make it better.

Federal records don't list a single commercial airliner crash that has been linked directly to drinking, but that doesn't mean professional pilots haven't been caught flying, or attempting to fly, when drunk.

A week ago, officials in Miami said they smelled alcohol on the breaths of two America West pilots, Capt. Thomas Cloyd, 44, and First Officer Christopher Hughes, 40, as they were carrying cups of coffee through an airport security checkpoint.

The America West plane left the gate before authorities could intervene, but air traffic controllers ordered the aircraft back to the gate before it could take off on a scheduled flight to Phoenix.

The two pilots were arrested after tests showed that Cloyd's blood-alcohol level was 0.091 percent and Hughes' was 0.084 percent. Both men were later released on bond and are scheduled for arraignment within a month.

Police records in Arizona show that Cloyd has been arrested twice for alcohol-related incidents, one involving a dispute with his wife and the other after an argument with a neighbor. The airline said it was unaware of the incidents before Cloyd's recent arrest.

Eric Malnic and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar are reporters for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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