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Flying high: Co-pilot's breathalyzer test failure at Heathrow puts JAL into tailspin


"Drunk Japanese pilot arrested at Heathrow Airport" read the BBC news headline on Nov 1.

Don't think that's particularly exceptional, remarked Friday (Nov 23). There's probably someone, somewhere in the world flying high right now.

Former JAL pilot and aviation critic Hiroshi Sugie put it like this: "In today's aircraft, when an emergency arises, things have been designed so that the pilot cannot control the plane on his own. All the tasks have been apportioned. So if you think it will be all right that it was just a co-pilot this time, that's a huge mistake. Even then, I can't imagine alcohol in the equation, even a small amount. All the people in the aviation industry, myself included, are astonished by this." 

At around 7 p.m. on Oct 28, a 42-year-old Japanese co-pilot was arrested at Heathrow Airport while preparing for a flight to Tokyo's Haneda Airport. The local police were alerted by the driver of a crew bus who smelled alcohol on the pilot. The co-pilot admitted that while in the hotel the night before, he had consumed two bottles of wine, three small bottles of beer and two cans of beer.

"One possibility was excessive stress," explained aviation critic and former JAL pilot Hiroyuki Kobayashi. "International flights are a battle with time differences. If they can't get to sleep pilots in some cases may become drowsy during the flight. So he may have thought that the alcohol would help him fall asleep."

Apparently at pre-flight meetings, JAL conducts its own sobriety test, which the co-pilot in question appears to have passed. Possible? Probably not.

A JAL spokesperson noted that it intended to introduce a new type of alcohol detector, already in use on its domestic routes, at overseas destinations as well. He said they weren't able to determine the details from the co-pilot because he was still in detention.

"After the court makes a judgment, we expect to determine a correct and appropriate punishment," he added.

JAL and other carriers generally abide by a rule that no drinking is permitted within 12 hours of a flight.

"But more new carriers, especially the LCCs (low cost carriers), make late-night arrivals and early-morning departures," said the aforementioned Sugie. "So people who want to drink tend to do it privately in their rooms, which is even more dangerous. It doesn't fit the reality."

Just before the co-pilot's arrest, a regular pilot for a JAL subsidiary reported in sick, which resulted in a delay in his flight shift. Actually, Friday reveals, he had been hung over, and by calling in sick, his flight was delayed, buying himself time before undergoing the breathalyzer test.

Isao Mori, author of a book titled "Rotten Wings: JAL's 60 years to Oblivion," remarks that JAL pilots of yore were elites, and for that reason were more likely to be assigned to international routes. But after the fatal crash of an Osaka-bound Boeing 747 in 1985, JAL's safety policies became even stricter.

"But then after the company declared bankruptcy in 2010, it was forced to make personnel cuts, and the total number of JAL pilots fell below those at All Nippon Airways," Mori points out. "Following the appointment of Yoshiharu Ueki -- himself a former pilot -- as JAL president, salaries were boosted by over 10 billion yen, and a 48-year-old pilot for example could take home a monthly salary of almost 2 million yen. After that came about, I suppose maybe pilots' began letting their guard down."

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism announced it is putting together an advisory panel to set up new restrictions on pilot tippling, even as this story appeared on the stands, sighs Friday, its possible that booze-besotted pilots are seated in cockpits somewhere in the world.

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That's really scary.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Its not the first time an Airline pilot has been caught drunk before flying and its not the first time JAL have been caught in a scandal remember those JAL cabin crew running the prostitution ring.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I am 100% sure that his colleagues knew he was drunk.

This is a matter of covering up for each other instead of all this jibberish.

And what’s this nonsense about not knowing anything about procedures because the pilot has been arrested? That’s the most pathetic excuse I have ever heard.

JAL doesn’t know what’s going on because they need to hear from this guy first?

You should have a fool proof alcohol detection system

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Perhaps they need to contract out the testing so it is harder to cover up for each other, especially to a non Japanese company.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

What about the other crew covering the pilot? Has anyone spoken to them and why did they feel the pilot was OK to fly? This is an important part of the story too!

8 ( +8 / -0 )

Osaka doug

Uhhh no, let me explain.

In Japan we 101% cover for work, each other, and the boss.

To imagine that there’s a meet8ng going on at JAL as to why the crew didn’t turn each other over to the cops when they saw something wrong...well as a Japanese...that kinda ridiculous!

0 ( +2 / -2 )

The scary thing, is... why Pilots seek Alcohol... What do they know that we don't ?

Cost cutting to the point of flying into a disaster ?

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

The scary thing, is... why Pilots seek Alcohol... What do they know that we don't ?

Yeah, considering no one else in the world drinks alcohol, why are pilots seeking it out?

4 ( +4 / -0 )

‘JAL and other carriers generally abide by a rule that no drinking is permitted within 12 hours of a flight.’

I wish I could belive this.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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