Pilots and air controllers to be breathalysed

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The Independent Online
The police are to be given new powers to test pilots, air-traffic controllers and maintenance engineers for alcohol and drug abuse.

The Department of Transport initiative comes after concerns that aviation workers, including 41,000 commercial and private pilots, may be operating while under the influence of drink or drugs. At present the police have no power to breathalyse or take a blood sample from a pilot or air-traffic controller.

A limit of about 20mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood will be used - equivalent to about one glass of wine or half a pint of lager - which is in effect a zero tolerance level. The DoT has yet to finalise the details but it has told police chiefs that it intends to introduce the changes later in the year.

Drinking is thought to be a bigger problem than drug-taking in the aviation world, which can involve extreme pressure and long hours. A DoT consultative paper says: "The CAA [Civil Aviation Authority] believe that alcohol is a contributory factor in a number of aircraft accidents each year. However, the true scope of the problem is hard to assess in the absence of testing."

At any one time, between 40 and 50 professional pilots are being counselled by the CAA for alcohol related problems. Since 1976 there have been nine known cases where pilots were drunk while flying a light aircraft - in four they crashed and were killed. There have been two known incidents involving drunken commercial pilots, although both were prevented from flying. In the past eight years the CAA has been notified of eight cases of drug use, all involving cannabis.

The new powers are to target Britain's 29,000 private pilots, 11,800 commercial pilots, 1,900 air-traffic controllers and 15,000 maintenance engineers. They have been prompted by the need to comply with a European Union directive that requires all member countries to ensure that by April 1999 flight crews do not work with more than 20mg of alcohol to 100ml blood.

Police officers are expected to use their new powers in two key areas - when they attend an air accident and believe that a person has been drinking or taking drugs, and when they believe that an offence is about to be committed, for example if a pilot has been drinking in a bar shortly before an aircraft takes off. Random testing will not take place.

Peter Sharpe, Chief Constable of Hertfordshire and head of the Association of Chief Police Officer's working party on the issue, said: "At the moment we cannot take a breath test unless the subject agrees voluntarily. We believe the new power will be useful to help deal with allegations or accidents where alcohol is believed to be involved."

A DoT spokesman said: "It seems odd that there is no limit at the moment. It will be some time before there is any announcement."