The High and the Mighty

A mere hangover can be enough to cloud a pilot's judgment. Flying drunk is far worse--not only stupid but also illegal and against the rules at every airline.

Yet the case of three Northwest Airlines pilots convicted of flying on too much alcohol and too little sleep suggests that there are holes in the system designed to keep drunks out of the cockpit. Congress owes it to the flying public to plug up those holes.

You don't have to look much beyond the case of Capt. Norman Prouse to know that the system isn't working. His defense was that he is an alcoholic and tolerates larger amounts of booze than the average man. Oh, sure. And, having admitted to a drinking problem, he should know that people might well wonder how many other times he might have strolled aboard after inhaling a bunch of rum and Cokes into the wee hours, as he did last March. And wonder if anyone in authority cared to notice.

Most large corporations, airlines included, operate safety-net programs for employees who find themselves addicted to alcohol or drugs, and Congress should do nothing to interfere with them.

The more science probes, the more evidence emerges that addiction is a disease, not a character flaw. But things can be done. An obvious change is in the FAA rule that requires pilots to submit to tests for drugs but not for alcohol.

The Northwest pilots argued that they were alert enough to get their 91 passengers where they wanted to go. Well, maybe, but why run that kind of risk? And would not any passenger who even suspected that the captain had downed 15 drinks the night before--while the rest of the crew was sharing pitchers of beer--have bolted for the door?

The very fact that the captain knew he had been drinking and nevertheless climbed behind the controls of the plane is itself evidence of severely impaired judgment.

There are signs that pilots drink and fly often enough to indicate that it is not a remote problem. An average of 10 commercial pilots a year lost their licenses in the late 1980s for flying under the influence. Congress must put an end to this practice with tougher screening and testing.

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