Drinking Limits for Airline Pilots Depend on Where They're Flying

By Bryan Le 02/28/17

Why doesn't the international aviation community have a set of unified guidelines for pilot drinking limits?

Drinking Limits for Airline Pilots Depend on Where They're Flying
Prepare for takeoff.

A car full of weekenders playing it fast and loose with their designated driver’s drink limit is disconcerting enough, but it turns out international airline pilots aren’t beholden to any one set of drink limits before flying either, CNN reports.

That isn’t to say that there are no rules on pilot drinking—there’s just no standardized international limit. While the International Civil Aviation Organization does set guidelines, it’s ultimately up to each country to set their own law and punishment—and results vary.

India, for example, prohibits any trace of alcohol whatsoever in their system and no drinks within 12 hours before piloting. 

"0.001% is also a violation," says Lalit Gupta of India's Directorate General of Civil Aviation.

U.S. pilots, on the other hand, can have up to 0.04% BAC and at least eight hours between “bottle to throttle.”

The differences in punishment also vary. In India, a first offense nets a three-month suspension, a second offense nets a three-year suspension and a third offense means a permanent ban from the profession, forever.

In the U.S., pilots caught violating alcohol rules typically face criminal charges and must successfully complete a rehab program before returning to duty.

Typically, drunk pilots aren’t an issue, but a few recent incidents have caused concerns among the international aviation community. Last December, a pilot in Canada was found passed out in the cockpit. A couple hours after the pilot's drunk-flying arrest, his blood alcohol content had risen to three times the legal limit.

Last year, two pilots in Scotland were arrested for allegedly violating alcohol rules before their New Jersey-bound flight.

Last March in Detroit, an American Airlines co-pilot failed a breathalyzer test before take-off. The 50-year-old pilot was arrested on the tarmac minutes before take-off. He failed a second breathalyzer after his arrest and was charged with operating an aircraft under the influence.

Despite these recent concerns, flying remains one of the safest ways to travel. Since 1980, only 11 out of 12,000 aviation accidents were related to alcohol.

"Instances of substance abuse are extremely rare among the approximately 100,000 professional airline pilots in the United States who safely fly passengers and cargo on more than 27,000 flights every day," writes the Air Line Pilots Association in a statement.

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Bryan Le grew up in the 90's, so the Internet is practically his third parent. This combined with a love for journalism led him to The Fix. When he isn't fulfilling his duties as Editorial Coordinator, he's obsessing over fancy keyboards he can't justify buying. Find Bryan on LinkedIn or Twitter