Flying Under the Influence

"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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