Four years ago, an embarrassed British Airways was forced to sack two of its pilots after they were filmed by Channel 4 Television indulging in heavy drinking bouts only hours before flying.
As public confidence in its pilots wavered, the airline launched an inquiry and vowed to crack down on alcohol abuse among its flight crews. Yet, just a few weeks ago, a BA pilot and a first officer both resigned after allegedly consuming alcohol before take-off from Oslo. And yesterday, after a Virgin captain was arrested in Washington over the weekend when alcohol was allegedly smelt on his breath, The Independent revealed that the airline pilots' union is refusing to allow its members to be subjected to random breath tests.
The rules are straightforward and strict: pilots are not allowed to drink for eight hours before flying and must keep alcohol consumption at moderate levels in the 24 hours before duty.
Although both airlines and the British Airline Pilots' Association reject suggestions of a drinking culture, anecdotal stories continue to emerge of pilots and cabin crews boozing late into the night before early morning flights, of mouthwashes kept close at hand to disguise alcohol on the breath and of crews being taken to airports straight from clubs.
After the Oslo incident, Richard Faulkner, a former cabin crew member sacked for drinking, said: "If the public had any idea of how much they knocked back, they'd never get on a flight. Drinking is a way of life at BA; it's part of the culture.''
About 12 to 15 pilots each year are investigated for alcohol abuse, because they have been convicted of drink-driving or their employers have registered concern. Only about two or three lose their licences, out of about 10,000 British pilots. In the past six years, only four BA pilots have been dismissed, as well as the two in Oslo who resigned. Virgin said the weekend incident was the only one of its kind in 20 years of flying.
Jamie Bowden, who worked for BA for 20 years, latterly as a manager at various airports, said he believed the "bottle to throttle'' rules were largely observed.
On the shorter European routes, with a late-night arrival followed by an early morning departure, he said the timing did not allow for drinking. And he believed that pilots would eventually accept random testing, rather than have it foisted upon them.