LONDON, England – An airline pilot has been jailed for nine months for being drunk in his cockpit before a flight.
The judge said it was ‘astonishing’ that foreign pilots flying out of UK airports were unaware of the law here and believed it was legal to fly if there was a 12 hour gap ‘from bottle to throttle.’
Captain Irfan Faiz, 55, was more than four times the drink-fly limit when he was breathalysed after being spotted ‘staggering’ and ‘not walking straight’ on the way to the plane, a court heard. He was arrested and taken to a police station for questioning.
Moments earlier he had been doing pre-flight checks in an Airbus 310 plane, which was due to fly from Leeds-Bradford airport to Islamabad in Pakistan with 145 passengers and 11 crew on board.
Airport security staff had noticed he was eating mints and smelt strongly of alcohol, but Faiz told an airport manager who boarded the plane: ‘I’m alright to fly it.’
He was escorted back to the terminal and explained he had drunk three-quarters of a litre of whisky the night before – finishing his drinking session 18 hours earlier at 3am.
Faiz told staff: ‘I can’t believe you can smell it on my breath after such a long time.’ An initial breath test showed he had 41 microgrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath. The limit for driving is 35 and for flying is nine.
A later test at the police station showed his alcohol level was 28 – still more than three times the limit.
A recently retired pilot who worked for Pakistan International Airlines appeared at Leeds Crown Court as a defence witness and said the company banned drinking for up to 12 hours before a flight – an increase on the previous eight hour rule.
There was no specific limit on alcohol levels, the court heard.
Mr Justice Coulson said he found it ‘extraordinary’ that rules about pilots drinking ‘can encompass any amount of alcohol’ providing 12 hours has elapsed before the flight.
He said: ‘I consider this to be an extraordinarily inadequate way to try to prevent pilots drinking in a way that would not endanger their passengers.’
Adding: ‘It is, of course, astonishing, that pilots regularly flying from the UK are not aware of the rules that relate to their own conduct.’
The judge told Faiz in general ‘airline pilots who are in drink when they are about to fly will go to prison.’ He said the flight ‘could have had potential catastrophic consequences.’
Adding: ‘Many people find flying a difficult and nervous ordeal at the best of the times. They need to have absolute confidence in their safety and security.’
Faiz admitted a charge of carrying out an ancillary aviation function while impaired by alcohol, contrary to the Railways and Transport Act 2003.
The court heard he was a well-respected pilot with 25 years’ experience and an unblemished record.
Faiz’s barrister, Paul Greaney QC, told the court his client ‘had no idea’ he was breaking UK rules at the time of the incident in September.
He said the married father-of-two had been stressed because his wife in Pakistan had been robbed days earlier and there had been kidnap threats against his children.
Faiz came from a distinguished family and his alcohol-related ban had brought shame on the family back home, the court heard.
Alcohol is banned for Muslims in Pakistan – representing about 96% of the population.
There is a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to drinking by PIA, but in practice the rules are flouted. A senior pilot has recently written to airline bosses, because of the Faiz prosecution, requesting clarification on specific rules relating to blood alcohol levels and time limits.
Countries around the world set different blood alcohol levels and time limits for pilots. Although a source from the British Airline Pilots Association said most pilots regarded the permitted alcohol level internationally as ‘pretty much zero.’
A spokesman for the Civil Aviation Authority said: ‘A pilot attempting to fly while under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs is a major threat to flight safety.
‘At UK airports the police have legal powers to test pilots for drink and drugs. Such incidents, however, are very rare.’