While airline drug testing can test for the usual suspects—alcohol, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana—the same cannot be said for synthetic opioids like fentanyl and oxycodone. A bit more disconcerting is the fact that airline drug testing is also run on an optional basis when it comes to commercial airline pilots’ physical exams, meaning some pilots can go years without being tested for substance use during their career.
Take the most recent case, for example: this past March, Spirit Airlines pilot Brian Halye was found dead in his home, along with his wife, from a suspected overdose of a heroin-fentanyl mixture, within a week of his last flight. Having worked for Spirit Airlines for nine years, the immediate questions that arose were: Was Halye ever tested for drug use during his piloting career? And is this a common oversight we should be concerned about?
FAA regulations are strict but still leave room for error
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokesperson in an email to the Dayton Daily News, “federal regulations require airlines to administer pre-employment, reasonable suspicion, random, post-accident, reasonable cause, and follow-up testing for drugs and alcohol,” which would mean there would be several points in a pilot’s career to be tested.
Standards are also high to meet for US pilots, who are subjected to a blood-alcohol limit of 0.04 percent, half the legal limit for US drivers. This comes with the informal slogan from the FAA to pilots to keep “eight hours from bottle to throttle,” meaning US pilots are required to stop drinking at least eight hours before taking flight.
But while alcohol and most street drugs may be covered under airline drug testing, reports from NBC Boston revealed that synthetic painkillers—which can be sold as regular prescription pills—are not necessarily detected in pilots’ drug tests. Under the US Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations, the FAA admitted, “the agency does not require testing for synthetic painkillers like fentanyl and oxycodone.”
WATCH VIDEO HERE: NBC Boston: Pilots Not Tested for Commonly Abused Drugs
“According to FAA data, 38 pilots tested positive for drugs in 2015, up 65 percent from five years earlier,” said NBC investigator, Ally Donnelly, in the video posted above, “but the FAA only requires airlines to randomly test 25 percent of safety-sensitive employees like pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics each year.”
This doesn’t include Transportation Security Administration, which has had a reported 858 TSA airport screeners test positive for drugs and/or alcohol between 2010 and 2016.
And in the case of Spirit Airlines pilot Brian Halye, while pilots under age 40 must update their first-class medical certificate every year, this only requires physical medical exams, not drug testing. Removing a pilot from a flight or in-between flights to randomly test them for substance use “could impact dozens of other flights and on-time performance, causing lost revenue and logistical problems,” according to a former Northwest Airlines general manager at the Dayton International Airport.
Airline drug testing improvement depends on each airline
With the latest scandal about a passenger who was forcibly dragged off a United Airlines plane, potential travelers are scrutinizing every airline’s safety protocol before choosing their flight.
The pressure may be weighing in for airlines to step up their precautions. The FAA has already stated that synthetic opioids are being considered as an addition to the DOT’s drug panel, but commercial airlines are largely in control of whether they conduct additional drug screening and how frequent these tests will be.
NBC Boston asked several major airline companies if they test for synthetic opioids like fentanyl and OxyContin, but the results came back mostly negative. Southwest, Virgin, and JetBlue said they did not test for these drugs while Delta, American, and United did not respond. Spirit Airlines curved the question by stating they were willing to cooperate with FAA regulations.
As of now, the main line of defense the FAA has for screening pilots’ substance use is promoting a whistleblower program, in which cabin crew members, pilots, and even passengers are encouraged to report suspected intoxication of a pilot or another crew member. So if anyone has concerns, they are allowed to speak up and avoid flying the friendly skies in fear.
Need Help? Start your recovery at Pathway to Hope
Whether you’re a pilot or a passenger, addiction can take you to an unwanted destination. If you, or a loved one, are struggling with addiction, then call one of our treatment specialists at Pathway to Hope at (844) 557-8575. Our 24-hour helpline provides call assistance to anyone who would like to learn more about addiction treatment, detox services, and how to fund their drug treatment plans. It’s time to spread your wings and fly to recovery.