BA imposes breath tests after 'drunk pilots' claim

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British Airways is to introduce compulsory drink and drugs tests for staff following allegations of alcohol abuse among flight crews.

British Airways is to introduce compulsory drink and drugs tests for staff following allegations of alcohol abuse among flight crews.

The airline is expected to impose a tough regime of random tests in an effort to pre-empt a Channel 4 exposé, due to be televised tomorrow night, which claims to show air crew reporting for duty while under the influence of alcohol.

The move by the airline will inevitably be followed by similar decisions at other British airlines such as Virgin and British Midland.

Management is keen to ensure that it is seen to be taking the issue seriously, ahead of a Dispatches programme, which caught one pilot reporting for duty on a flight from Barcelona to Gatwick, having allegedly consumed the equivalent of 10 pints of beer and after just three hours' sleep. Eleven pilots and three cabin crew have been taken off the flying roster by British Airways (BA) pending an internal investigation into the allegations.

The new regime proposed by BA - already adopted by United States airlines - is expected to affect thousands of staff all over the world, including those who are not directly involved in flying aircraft. In the railway industry in Britain, all employees, including administrators, are not allowed to drink during working hours.

BA has been stung by the implication that because flight crew abused drink openly in the Dispatches report, their behaviour is condoned by management. The company is expected today to express its intention to speak to unions about the way in which the test will be implemented because contracts of employment contain no reference to such tests. But it is understood that BA is determined to introduce the tests and that it is prepared to talk to unions only over how the system might be implemented.

Leaders of the main unions involved, the British Airline Pilots' Association and the Transport and General Workers' Union, which covers cabin staff, will be asked to discuss details of the new regime, including appeals systems.

Unions will have difficulty in resisting strong public approval of the new tests, although they will have to be incorporated into contracts of employment.

BA has dismissed two pilots in the past five years for drink-related incidents. The airline admitted last week to carrying out research in the UK and abroad on the feasibility of random testing, following its introduction in other transport industries. The company insisted, however, that it had made no decision.

A spokeswoman for the British Airline Pilots' Association said the union was not aware of any proposals, but would consider any plan for tests put forward by BA.

Under human rights legislation that came into force on 2 October, airlines are unlikely to have the right to impose tests on employees.

As part of the Channel 4 programme, a former BA stewardess befriended cabin-crew staff on a series of short-haul flights to Continental destinations and filmed them drinking until the early hours of the morning. The British Airline Pilots' Association accused the makers of the programme of "entrapment".

Channel 4 claims its reportproves there is a "heavy drinking culture" at BA and alcohol abuse constitutes a potential risk to passenger safety.

The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, has called for a full report from the Civil Aviation Authority.