The United pilot, Erwin Vermont Washington, was about to take off from London's Heathrow Airport for Chicago with 124 passengers on board. Instead, he was removed from the aircraft, suspended by his airline and now faces up to two years in a U.K. prison if convicted on criminal charges. He is the third U.S. pilot arrested in 13 months on alcohol-related charges.
Monday's arrest raises more questions about what goes on in airplane cockpits. It follows the distracted flying incident in the U.S. last month, where Northwest Airlines pilots overshot Minneapolis by more than 100 miles because, they said, they were using their laptop computers.
In May an American Airlines pilot was arrested at Heathrow and charged with being under the influence of alcohol. Another United pilot was arrested on the same charge in October 2008. And a Southwest Airlines pilot was suspended in January after allegedly showing up for his flight in Ohio reeking of alcohol. He's back on duty.
In 2008, 13 pilots violated the Federal Aviation Administration's alcohol-related rules. Pilots can't fly if they have a blood-alcohol level of 0.04 percent or higher, half the legal driving limit in most states. They are prohibited from drinking any alcohol in the eight hours before reporting for work, a provision known in the profession as the "bottle-to-throttle" rule.
British law is even stricter with a 0.02 percent limit. That level can be reached with about one regular beer.
The number of incidents involving alcohol is tiny compared with the thousands of flights each day around the world. But when it happens it's usually up to passengers or crew members to spot a pilot who isn't fit to fly.
The FAA checks pilots' backgrounds for alcohol-related offenses such as drunk driving, But Barry Sweedler, a former National Transportation Safety Board official who worked on alcohol-related issues, said in a recent interview that the FAA does little enforcement. "They rely on other people to find the bad apples," he said.
U.S. regulators have approached the issue by encouraging pilots with a drinking problem to identify themselves and seek treatment. They are tested periodically and can regain their license, usually in about a year. Sweedler estimated that there are hundreds of airline pilots who are alcoholics and take part in a federally sanctioned treatment program that includes periodic monitoring.
"It's the guy who thinks he can get away with it that's scary," Sweedler said. "I'm sure there are pilots over the limit who are flying every day."
Critics have pressed for a zero blood-alcohol level standard.
In the latest incident, a United co-worker turned in Washington. Experts say that's rare. In other recent cases, passengers were the cops.
That's what happened in Ohio. Passengers told security screeners that Southwest Airlines pilot David P. Shook smelled of alcohol. Shook dashed into a bathroom, took off his uniform jacket and called in sick, according to airport police. The airline put the 11-year veteran on leave. The co-pilot, who accompanied Shook to the security checkpoint, said he didn't smell alcohol.
The president of the pilots' union at Southwest, Carl Kuwitzky, said then that nervous fliers often accuse pilots of drinking, especially after a highly publicized incident.
"Ninety-nine percent of (the accusations) are completely unfounded," he said.
Sweedler said he can't remember any U.S. airline crashes attributed to alcohol. A 1961 crash in Finland that killed all 25 people aboard was blamed on pilot error, with drinking and fatigue of the two pilots being a contributing factor, according to the Aviation Safety Network.
Since the 1970s, the FAA has backed an alcoholism-treatment program run by the Air Line Pilots Association and the airlines. Dana Archibald, an American Eagle pilot and the union's national chairman for the program, says 90 percent of the pilots who volunteer complete the program successfully. He says 4,300 pilots have returned to active duty after becoming sober.
Archibald says pilots can become alcoholics just as easily as doctors, lawyers and congressmen. He says the program encourages pilots to deal with their alcoholism rather than "going underground."
"I went through the program myself," Archibald says. "It not only gave me my job back, but it saved my life."