What happens when an airline pilot is accused of drinking on the job?

Posted by Doug Murphy | Aug 16, 2019 | 0 Comments

Although the recent arrest of three intoxicated pilots in less than a week has generated headlines nationwide, the reality is that incidents related to intoxicated airline pilots are rare. In fact, out of the 117,000 American pilots tested for alcohol from 2010 through 2018, only 99 were above the legal limit according to the Washington Post.

But when a pilot tests above the legal limit, the consequences can be severe.

Just like with a DWI charge, state and federal law set a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit for pilots. The state of Texas outlaws the operation of any airplane by an intoxicated pilot. According to the statute, intoxication is the lack of normal use of your mental or physical capacities due to the introduction of alcohol, drugs, or a combination of both.

The FAA has more specific guidelines for pilots and alcohol consumption. Federal Aviation Regulation § 91.17 bars a pilot from flying:

  • Within 8 hours of having consumed alcohol;
  • While under the influence of alcohol;
  • While using any drug that adversely affects safety; and
  • With a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.04% or greater.

What happens when a pilot is arrested in Houston for intoxication before a flight?

When a commercial pilot is arrested under suspicion of intoxication before a flight, several things are quickly set into motion. In addition to the criminal charges, a pilot alleged to be intoxicated will also face a potential administrative suspension of their pilot's license.

Temporary License Suspension

One of the first steps the FAA and the airline will take against a pilot accused of intoxication is to temporarily suspend the pilot's license and flying privileges. While there is no automatic revocation of a pilot's license in these cases, the FAA will suspend a pilot pending the outcome of the investigation. Typically this suspension happens immediately.

All major airlines also have policies in place regarding allegations of drinking on the job. Delta, for example, has a zero tolerance policy for intoxication and will relieve a pilot of his or her duties immediately pending investigation. Although the FAA will undoubtedly receive notification of the arrest, it is the pilot's responsibility to inform the regulator of the arrest on his or her own.

Criminal Charges

Flying while intoxicated (FWI) is a criminal charge in the State of Texas. If the prosecutor is able to convince a jury that the pilot was under the influence of alcohol, the pilot will face a conviction. A conviction will result in a maximum jail sentence of 180 days as well as a fine of up to $2,000. What's more, the pilot must report the conviction to the FAA within 60 days.

Permanent License Revocation

Regardless of the outcome of the criminal case, the FAA will proceed with an investigation into the allegations of drinking on the job. If they ultimately clear the pilot of any wrongdoing, the suspension will be lifted. 

However, the allegation alone could lead to termination from the airline. If the investigators conclude that the pilot was intoxicated prior to a flight, the FAA will typically revoke the pilot's license permanently. Long story short: the result of an investigation into drinking before a flight is typically career-ending.

Contact a Houston-Based Texas Flying While Intoxicated Lawyer

While state and local agencies will quickly line up against a pilot accused of flying while intoxicated, it is important to know that a conviction is not inevitable. To discuss your options with an experienced attorney in dealing with pilots charged with FWI or DWI and successfully dealing with FAA reporting requirements, contact the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. right away.

About the Author

Doug Murphy

Doug Murphy is one of only two Texas lawyers Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, and also in DWI Defense by the National College for DUI Defense, accredited by the American Bar Association and the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.


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