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Reuters/Vivek Prakash
Drink and fly?
COCKPIT COCKTAIL

More than 40 pilots tested positive for alcohol on duty in India last year

By Manu Balachandran

Fasten your seat belts.

Pilots in India can’t stop hitting the bottle before entering the cockpit—and the most frequent offenders in recent years are from Jet Airways and IndiGo, two airlines that dominate the country’s aviation market.

In 2015 alone, 43 pilots in the country tested positive for alcohol during pre-flight examinations. That’s the highest number in the last three years, according to data presented by the civil aviation ministry in parliament on May 05.

This year, so far, 13 pilots have turned up drunk to work.

Jet Airways, India’s second largest carrier, has had the maximum number of pilots reporting to work drunk. Since 2013, some 38 pilots at Jet Airways (including JetLite) have showed up to work under the influence. Jet was followed by IndiGo, where 25 pilots tested positive for alcohol.

The directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) rules mandate (pdf) that pilots and cabin crew of all scheduled flights must be subjected to pre-flight breath-analyser examination. “For all scheduled flights originating from destinations outside India, post-flight breath-analyser examination of each flight crew and cabin crew shall be carried out on reaching in India,” the rules add. 

In case of a violation, a pilot’s licence will be suspended for three months for a first time offence. For a second violation, the pilot’s license is suspended for three years. A third time offence leads to a cancellation of the pilot’s license.

“I am at loss for words,” an aviation expert told Quartz, requesting anonymity. “This is completely unacceptable behaviour and needs to be eliminated ruthlessly.”

“No normal office goer goes to work drunk, stating physical, mental or emotional  fatigue,” he added. “Here, we are talking about someone who is responsible for human lives both in the aircraft and on the ground. A tiny error of judgement can cause irreparable damage.”

Airlines respond

IndiGo, India’s largest airline by market share, explained that the company undertakes an alcohol dependency check after a pilot is suspended and, so far, has not found a single case of alcohol dependency. An IndiGo spokesperson added:

We have a education program for crew members, which highlights the issues on use of alcohol and drugs. The response to this program has been positive. Further, flight crew members before joining IndiGo undergo drug testing and during line operations the drug testing is carried out on a random basis. No crew has tested positive for any drug abuse during random checking.

A spokesperson for Jet Airways told Quartz that the airline is compliant with Indian regulations on pre-flight screening of all pilots and cabin crew.

“On the basis of this and as per internal airline policy, crew members if found BA+ (breath analyser positive) face a 3-month suspension without pay and benefits. A second offence results in termination of services,” the spokesperson said.

“The rigorous nature of the screening process for crew members before a flight, and the punitive action taken against those who do not comply with such safety standards, is in itself a deterrent,” the spokesperson added.

SpiceJet and Air India are yet to respond to an emailed questionnaire from Quartz.

Between April 2015 and January 2016, the number of international passengers flying to and from India grew by 7.6%, while domestic passenger traffic was up 20.6%.

By 2020, India is likely to become the world’s third largest aviation market after the US and China, with the country’s airports expected to carry as many as 369 million passengers compared to 190 million currently.

Hopefully, none of those passengers would have get on a flight in India with a drunk pilot in the cockpit.