Pilots' union blocked random alcohol tests

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The Independent Online

The airline pilots' union has refused to allow its members to be subjected to random alcohol and drug tests despite three years of lobbying by British Airways.

The revelation comes after a Virgin Atlantic pilot was arrested in Washington on Friday, shortly before he was due to fly across the Atlantic, and charged with trying to fly a plane while under the influence of alcohol. The flight's 383 passengers returned to Britain yesterday, 26 hours late.

BA became concerned about the issue of alcohol after a television programme three years ago showed flight crew drinking heavily in the early hours before reporting for duty.

Only a month ago, a BA pilot and a first officer resigned rather than face disciplinary action for allegedly drinking before take-off. The captain, William McAuliffe, 50, and his first officer, David Ryan, 26, failed a breath test on 11 November at Oslo airport. The purser, Michele Giannandrea, 48, was also said to have failed the test, but has not resigned. All three were arrested after a tip-off.

But in spite of protracted negotiations, the British Airline Pilots' Association (Balpa) has steadfastly rejected the idea of random testing. It argues that "peer pressure" - encouraging employees to report on each other - is a sufficient control.

Damian Green, the shadow Secretary of State for Transport, said he was "astonished" by Balpa's stance. "It's vital that public confidence be maintained so that those who put their lives in the hands of the pilot know that safety is absolutely paramount."

BA has said it does not want to impose random testing against the wishes of employees. But critics argue that the airline is more concerned about the possibility of industrial action.

The Railways and Transport Safety Act, which comes into effect early next year, sets a limit for pilots of 20 milligrams in 100 millilitres of blood - just a quarter of the drink-drive limit. Police are given powers to conduct tests on "reasonable suspicion", according to the Department for Transport. But there is no provision for random tests.

Regulations at BA and Virgin state that pilots are not allowed to drink alcohol within eight hours of flying and consumption must only be "moderate" within 24 hours of reporting for duty.

Critics of the legislation told ministers that while a strict new limit on alcohol consumption by pilots was welcome, there was no detailed provision for enforcement.

Some industry insiders say that pilots who have been dismissed for drinking on duty often find work elsewhere. "When motorists have breached the limit, they are banned for at least a year, There is no such provision in the airline industry," a BA source said.

The Virgin captain, Richard Harwell, an American who lives with his family in Britain, will be formally accused at a bail hearing today and faces up to five years in jail if convicted. He was arrested after airport staff smelt alcohol on his breath.

A spokesman for Virgin Atlantic expressed his shock over the incident, but said the company saw no reason to introduce random tests.

The airline had been operating for 20 years and this was the first such incident it had experienced, he said. "We think our existing policy of no tolerance to alcohol is pretty successful. We don't have a problem with staff in safety critical jobs."