Flying Under the Influence

An American Airlines pilot is fighting in a British court to keep his job.

James Yates, who hails from Ohio, is accused of attempting to perform his role as first officer on an American Airlines Boeing 767 flight while testing almost seven times over the legal alcohol limit.

Yates, 46, was arrested at Manchester Airport last February as he was about to board a Chicago-bound American Airlines flight carrying 181 passengers.

He was to be one of three pilots on the plane -- the minimum number that U.S. federal regulations require on transatlantic flights of more than eight hours.

"Police arrived, and the defendant smelled strongly of intoxicants, alcohol, and he was asked to provide a specimen of breath," prosecutor Martin Walsh told the court. "He provided a specimen of breath and it was positive."

It is not common practice to test pilots for alcohol when they report to work.

American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner told ABC News, "We do not have a daily screening policy for our pilots, but we do screen them regularly, as is the industry practice, and we hold our employees to the highest standards."

"I wouldn't get on the plane if I knew a pilot was drunk. I wouldn't put my life in the hands of someone under the influence on any form of transport," said Ronald Wohlman, the global creative director of Lowe Worldwide who takes an average of four international flights a week. "They should test pilots before they let them on the plane."

Security officers stopped Yates as he was searching for his security pass to enter the gate. An airport security officer testified Monday that Yates looked intoxicated. A Breathalyzer determined that the pilot was 6½ times over the legal limit for flying an aircraft.

Yates was taken to a Manchester Police Station where he underwent further alcohol testing.

Meanwhile, the flight was delayed and had to make an unexpected landing in New York so that an additional pilot could replace Yates.

Piloting while drunk is not a cause of concern in the United States today, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which reports that fewer than 10 cases are reported each year.

FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette also confirmed that there have been no accidents to date as a result of an inebriated pilot, however there is no telling how catastrophic the consequences would be.

And for most, a close call is close enough.

Some Americans may recall the 1990 case of Northwest air crew 727, who had a wild night of drinking in Fargo, N.D. All three got in their plane the next morning and flew to Minneapolis-St. Paul but were arrested on arrival for flying under the influence.

All three served prison time and only one of the three was rehabilitated and able to return to his position as a captain at Northwest Airlines.

John Nance, a veteran airline and military pilot who is also ABC News' aviation analyst said that while the industry has changed over the past 30 years since the days when "old boyism" meant that crew members would think twice before turning one another in for alcohol or drug abuse, drinking on the job is absolutely not something that can be tolerated.

"There is no room for it on an airplane, just as there's no room for it when a surgeon is at the operating table."

But the FAA insists that the rules are strict enough.

"Pilots know the rules," said FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette. "They know that they stand to lose their certificate and their livelihood if they are tested and found to be over the limit. They know it's a serious offence."

In the United States, pilots are prohibited to fly if their blood alcohol level is 0.04 percent or higher. "If a pilot is tested randomly by their employer and their blood alcohol level is found to be between 0.02 and 0.039, they will be grounded for 30 minutes and then retested," said Duquette.

The FAA confirmed that, other than random testing, there's no real way of finding out if a pilot has had one too many.

"The FAA requires that each airline do a pre-employment test. If they're suspicious about a pilot they're about to hire, thereafter they may perform random testing for alcohol," she said.

While Nance agrees that an inebriated crew is rare, he does worry that that the airline industry's current climate of job and salary cuts might lead to a buildup in pressure that brings on potential drug or alcohol abuse. "This is something we have to watch," he said. "The propensity is at an all-time higher level now."

Yates, meanwhile, denied that he had any plan to fly the plane under the influence. He claims he was on his way to let his captain know that he was sick.

The court case continues and Yates' fate swings in the balance.

"We're watching the case closely, but we can't discuss any further details," said Wagner, who confirmed that the airline, as a matter of policy, does help employees who've developed drug and alcohol abuse problems find rehabilitation.

Yates, who is currently on a leave of absence from American Airlines, is not charged with attempting to fly an aircraft while over the alcohol limit, because he didn't gain access to the plane, but he may still face serious consequences, possibly even the loss of his job.

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