Suspended British Airways pilot 'drank 10 pints hours before flight'

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British Airways was accused yesterday of presiding over a dangerous drinking culture among its flight crews after pilots were seen consuming large quantities of alcohol within hours of taking command ofairliners.

British Airways was accused yesterday of presiding over a dangerous drinking culture among its flight crews after pilots were seen consuming large quantities of alcohol within hours of taking command ofairliners.

The captain of one flight from Barcelona to London allegedly reported for duty after having the equivalent of 10 pints and just three hours' sleep. The captain slept all the way back, while the aircraft was apparently flown by the first officer, who had the equivalent of eight pints and seven and a half hours' sleep.

Both men were seen carousing to the early hours of the morning in a Channel 4 Dispatches programme to be screened next week. Eleven pilots and three cabin crew were suspended over allegations by the programme that they had breached BA's rules on drinking.

Caroline Wooliston, a television researcher and former BA air stewardess who befriended the flight crews and helped to film their activities, told a press conference in London yesterday that drinking to excess was "endemic" among BA staff. Asked why she did not report her concerns to the airline when she was employed there, she said that colleagues who had done so had been "bullied and ostracised". She added: "It is a massive organisation and I would have been one very small voice."

The programme makers said they had filmed six flights and at least one crew member was found to have broken the rules in each case. Out of 12 pilots, 10 had been drinking excessively, they said. Pilots and cabin crew are not allowed to consume any alcohol within eight hours of a flight and are limited to a maximum of five units (one unit is a small glass of wine) over the preceding 16 hours.

Channel 4 said short-haul flights to continental destinations involving overnight stays were chosen because they were "notorious" for heavy drinking. However, the programme makers said the individual flights were selected at random. Ms Wooliston insisted she did not encourage the BA employees to drink.

Dorothy Byrne, commissioning editor at Channel 4, said the programme demonstrated how heavy drinking was a part of pilot culture. "It's clear that there is a potential risk to passenger safety which needs to be eliminated by closer monitoring and tighter regulation." She said there had been no attempt on the part of the flight crew to hide their activities.

The programme pointed out that while American pilots had to undergo random alcohol tests, there was no such procedure at BA because it was not part of employees' contracts.

The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, was said to be appalled by the programme's findings and called for a full report from the Civil Aviation Authority. Mr Prescott, who has responsibility for transport, expressed concerns over the length of time it had taken the company to make its revelations public. "I am concerned that a television company appears to have had this information for some time, but has only now made it public," he said.

The programme makers are understood to have filmed the crews in the spring.

The British Airline Pilots' Association has said it will defend its members and accused Channel 4 of "entrapment". BA has suspended the employees concerned pending an investigation, but has refused to comment on the allegations.

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