Alcoholic beverages used by many to “unwind” or relax, act as a social “ice-breaker,” a way to alter one’s mood by decreasing inhibitions. Alcohol consumption is widely accepted, often providing the cornerstone of social gatherings and celebrations. Along with cigarettes, many adolescents associate the use of alcohol as a rite of passage into adulthood. While its use is prevalent and acceptable in our society, it should not come as a surprise that problems arise in the use of alcohol and the performance of safety-related activities, such as driving an automobile or flying an aircraft. “These problems are made worse by the common belief that accidents happen ‘to other people, but not to me.’”(Dick, 2001) There is a tendency to forget that flying an aircraft is a highly demanding knowledgeable and psychomotor task that takes place in an inhospitable environment where pilots are exposed to various sources of stress. Alcohol, used in the aviation industry by defiant individuals, negatively affects themselves as well as those people associated with the aviation industry.
Alcohol is rapidly absorbed from the stomach and small intestine, and transported by the blood throughout the body. Its toxic effects vary considerably from person to person and are influenced by variables such as gender, body weight, rate of consumption (time), and total amount consumed. According to Stratton, Howe & Battaglia (1996), the average, healthy person eliminates pure alcohol at a fairly constant rate – about 1/3 to 1/2 oz. of pure alcohol per hour, which is equivalent to the amount of pure alcohol contained in any of the popular drinks listed in Table 1.
TABLE 1: Amount of alcohol in various alcoholic beverages.
This rate of elimination of alcohol is relatively constant, regardless of the total amount of alcohol consumed. In other words, whether a person consumes a few or many drinks, the rate of alcohol elimination from the body is essentially the same. Therefore, the more alcohol an individual consumes, the longer it takes his/her body to get rid of it. Even after the complete elimination of all of the alcohol in the body, there are undesirable effects-hangover-that can last 48 to 72 hours following the last drink. “The majority of adverse effects produced by alcohol relate to the brain, the eyes, and the inner ear-three, crucial organs to a pilot.” (Miller & Morphet, 2000, pg 91) Brain effects include impaired reaction time, reasoning, judgment, and memory. Alcohol decreases the ability of the brain to make use of oxygen. This adverse effect can be magnified as a result of simultaneous exposure to altitude, characterized by a decreased partial pressure of oxygen. Visual symptoms include eye muscle imbalance, which leads to double vision and difficulty focusing. Inner ear effects include dizziness, and decreased hearing perception. If other variables are added, such as sleep deprivation, fatigue, medication use, altitude hypoxia, or flying at night or in bad weather, the negative effects are significantly magnified.
“Table 2 summarizes some of the effects of various blood alcohol concentrations. The blood alcohol content values in the table overlap because of the wide variation in alcohol tolerance among individuals.” (Howe & Battaglia, 1996, pg 112)
0.01-0.05(10-50mg%) Average individual appears normal
0.03-0.12*(30-120 mg%) Mild euphoria, talkativeness, decreased inhibitions, decreased attention, impaired judgment, increased reaction time
0.09-0.25(90-250 mg%) Emotional instability, loss of critical judgment, impairment of memory and comprehension, decreased sensory response, mild muscular incoordination.
0.18-0.30(180-300 mg%) Confusion, dizziness, exaggerated emotions (anger, fear, grief) impaired visual perception, decreased pain sensation, impaired balance, staggering gait, slurred speech, moderate muscular incoordination.
0.27-0.40(270-400 mg%) Apathy, impaired consciousness, stupor, significantly decreased response to stimulation, severe muscular incoordination, inability to stand or walk, vomiting, incontinence of urine and feces.
0.35-0.50(350-500 mg%) Unconsciousness, depressed or abolished reflexes, abnormal body temperature, coma; possible death from respiratory paralysis (450 mg% or above.)
Table 2: Some of the effects of various blood alcohol concentrations
Alcohol, a sedative, hypnotic, and addicting drug, quickly impairs judgment and leads to behavior that can easily contribute to, or cause air accidents.
The dangers of drinking and driving are well known, so it is obvious that drinking and flying are also incompatible. Aviation is very unforgiving of mistakes and the complexity of powered flight by far exceeds that of road transport. Subtle errors on the part of an intoxicated pilot are thus potentially far more serious than for the intoxicated driver. “The limited survey data available, and the indirect indicators of drinking, do not suggest that aircrew are generally heavy drinkers – in spite of occupational and sub-cultural factors, such as work pattern, time away from home, social custom and fatigue, that might be expected to encourage heavy drinking in this group.” (Shari Stamford Krause, February 14, 1996)
Pilots have shown impairment in their ability to fly an ILS approach or to fly IFR, and even to perform routine VFR flight tasks while under the influence of alcohol, regardless of individual flying experience. The number of serious errors committed by pilots dramatically increases at or above concentrations of 0.04% blood alcohol. This is not to say that problems don’t occur below this value. According to Reinhart (1997), some studies have shown decrements in pilot performance with blood alcohol concentrations as low as the 0.025%. Table 3 shows the various results of impairment, by pilots, over a span of a 6-year study period.
Table 2: Impaired Pilot Fatalities & Blood Alcohol Content
* = Some cases may include alcohol produced after death by tissue decomposition.
A hangover effect, produced by alcoholic beverages after the acute intoxication has worn off, may be just as dangerous as the intoxication itself. Symptoms commonly associated with a hangover are headache, dizziness, dry mouth, stuffy nose, fatigue, upset stomach, irritability, impaired judgment, and increased sensitivity to bright light. A pilot with these symptoms would certainly not be fit to safely operate an aircraft. In addition, such a pilot could readily be perceived as being “under the influence of alcohol.”
Flying, while fun and exciting, is a precise, demanding, and unforgiving endeavor. Any factor that impairs the pilot’s ability to perform the required tasks during the operation of an aircraft is an invitation for disaster. The use of alcohol is a significant self-imposed stress factor that should be eliminated from the cockpit. The ability to do so is strictly within the pilot’s control. CAR’s section AIR 3.11 regulates the use of alcohol and drugs by pilots. Among other provisions, this regulation states that no person may operate or attempt to operate an aircraft:
Keep in mind that regulations alone are no guarantee that problems won’t occur. It is very
important for pilots to understand the negative effects of alcohol and its deadly impact on flight safety.
Drinking by passengers can interfere with aviation safety in two ways. First, passengers under the influence of alcohol may become abusive and violent against crewmembers because alcohol can trigger aggressive behavior even at moderate doses. Second, alcohol may pose a serious threat to the intoxicated passengers themselves as well as other occupants in situations that require immediate evacuation because cognitive function and performance can be impaired even at a BAC *0.4 g/l. An intoxicated passenger is less able to perceive the need for immediate action, to follow directions and to quickly exit the aircraft.
“Extreme misbehavior by unruly passengers, often called air rage or sky rage, can lead to some tense moments in the air and may even put crewmembers and passengers at risk”(McCarthey, 2001). Reasons for such behavior include excessive alcohol consumption, smoking bans, crowding, and long flights, psychological feelings of a loss of control, or problems with authority figures. Air-rage incidents have jumped 400 percent in the past five years, according to (multiple authors, 2000). Disruptive passengers have burdened various national and international carriers. And it isn’t just pampered celebrities who are throwing the fits. British Airways now distributes printed warnings to disruptive flyers warning them that the face arrests for bad behavior. “While cabin crews are on flights to ensure safety, a recent survey of flight crews from 25 major airlines found that the majority had been given little or no training in defusing awkward situations. A campaign launched by the International Transport Workers’ Federation has been launched to make sure attendants are regarded as trained safety professionals, not just cocktail waitresses”(Blais, 1996). Generally, drunken passengers are prevented from boarding. But once they are seated, passengers can order as much booze as they wish. The responsibility of cutting off the cocktails, falls to the flight attendants. Free liquor is a perk that airlines are hesitant to take away. Stress is another factor in the bad behavior equation. A food cart might accidentally bump a tightly round-up individual and that’s all that is needed to set him/her off. This has been known to happen to travelers who have not been given enough information about a delay. Anxiety, harbored by a fear of flying, has caused passengers to go berserk, according to Reinhart (1997). Here are some suggestions for dealing with noisy neighbors from McCarthey (2001):
If you do not want to be part of the problem, take these steps:
nonsmoking flights by bringing along nicotine chewing gum.
combine medication and alcohol. And never take medication that has been prescribed for someone else.
Alcohol, used in the aviation industry by defiant individuals, negatively affects themselves as well as those people associated with the aviation industry. Those aircrew individuals can avoid problems, associated with alcohol, by following the recommendations below:
As a minimum, adhere to all the guidelines of the A.I.P section AIR 3.11:
A more conservative approach is to wait 24 hours from the last use of alcohol before flying. This is especially true if intoxication occurred or if you plan to fly IFR. Cold showers, drinking black coffee, or breathing 100% oxygen cannot speed up the elimination of alcohol from the body. Consider the effects of a hangover. Eight hours from “bottle to throttle” does not mean you are in the best physical condition to fly, or that your blood alcohol concentration is below the legal limits. Recognize the hazards of combining alcohol consumption and flying. Most important, use good judgment. Your life and the lives of your passengers are at risk if you drink and fly.
For those passengers who find themselves deeply dependant on alcohol to relieve the stresses of flying, the following recommendations have been issued by Reinhart (2001):
During the Flight wear comfortable clothing. Looser fitting or button-down shirts are often recommended for those traveling for the first time, or for those who are nervous about flying as they are less constrictive. If you’re on a long flight, drink plenty of liquids
(preferably without caffeine or alcohol). Dehydration is the primary cause of jet lag. It’s OK to take a bottle of water or juice with you on the plane, or you can ask the flight attendants for beverages. Try to stay relaxed. Bring a walkman with some music that normally helps you unwind. You’ll probably go through some bumpy patches, but that’ll be expected. In conclusion, any pilot or passenger who consumes any alcohol uncontrollably, either before or during a flight, jeopardizes the lives and safety of those people involved in the aviation industry whether in the sky, or, on the ground!
Transport Canada & NAV Canada (2000). Aeronautical Information Publication. Ottawa, ON
McCarthey: (2001). Air Rage Rises, Fueled by Stress, Alcohol [Online] Available: http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/europe/9902/01/airage.passengers/
Shari Stamford Krause(February 14, 1996). Aircraft Safety: Accident
Investigations, Analyses & Applications. Denver, CO: McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing.
Steven Dick (January, 2000). Accidents: From Sky to Ground. Aviator, 16 Vol.10#5
Miller & Morphet(March 2000). Aviation / Aerospace Medicine Articles and Publications [Online] Available: http://www.ozemail.com.au/~dxw/avmedpub.html
Richard O. Reinhart(1997). Basic Flight Physiology. Denver, CO: Basic Flight Physiology.
Stratton, Howe & Battaglia(1996). Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: Diagnosis, Epidemiology, Prevention, and Treatment. Miami, FLA: The Institute of Medicine Report.
David Blais (1996). Over-view Of Alcohol-Related Problems [Online] Available: http://cpmcnet.columbia.edu/texts/guide/hmg06_0003.html
Multiple authors (2000). Why Airplanes Crash: Aviation Safety in a Changing
World. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
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