Japan Airlines’ drinking pilots prompt new alcohol tests

  • The flag carrier’s pilots failed alcohol breath tests 19 times in little over a year, plunging the airline into an embarrassing scandal
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 November, 2018, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2018, 11:30am

Japan Airlines (JAL) will introduce new breathalyser tests for staff after pilots failed alcohol breath tests 19 times in little over a year, a revelation that has left the flag carrier scrambling to save its reputation.

Yuji Akasaka, the president of the airline, is expected to announce measures on Friday to stamp out drinking by pilots before they fly.

Nineteen pilots were found to have alcohol levels above 0.1 mg/L during the last 15 months in violation of airline policy, the Mainichi newspaper reported. There are no limits for pilots under Japanese law. A total of 12 flights were delayed as a result of positive breathalyser tests.

A JAL spokesman said that a report would be submitted to the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau detailing procedural changes to be implemented as a result of the scandal.

One measure will be the introduction of more accurate breathalysers to test crew before a flight, the spokesman said, adding that the equipment had already been rolled out on domestic flights.

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“We understand that this is a very serious issue and safety is our top concern,” he said. “We are taking action and we aim to be able to win back the trust of our customers.”

That may take some time, however, particularly if reports that previous breathalyser tests required crew to report on each other if they suspected a colleague had been drinking turn out to be correct.

A former JAL employee said in an interview that the old tests required crew to verify each other’s results and did not store the data, meaning that a crew member could take the test on behalf of a colleague and then confirm the results.

The scandal at JAL erupted after a co-pilot was arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport soon before he was due to take off on a flight at Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport on October 29. A subsequent breath test produced a reading of 0.93 mg/L, more than 10 times the legal limit in the UK.

The fact that the co-pilot had earlier ostensibly passed the JAL breath test has raised further questions about the company’s commitment to safety and the conduct of its employees.

“This puts a severe dent in their reputation,” said Geoff Tudor, a Tokyo-based analyst for Japan Aviation Management Research.

“The generally accepted industry standard is what they call a ‘bottle-to-throttle’ time of 12 hours, but there are no legal penalties under Japanese law for pilots being over the top as they are supposed to follow their own company’s regulations.”

“In Japan, regulations generally come as a reaction to an action, so I expect the transportation authorities here to now enact legislation specifically to deal with this sort of situation,” Tudor added.

The JAL spokesman said the company had received no reports of pilots evading breathalyser tests or there being a “culture of drinking” among crew.

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JAL has attracted scrutiny over the drinking of its employees before.

In 1977, a JAL flight travelling between Anchorage and Tokyo crashed soon after take-off, killing all five people on board.

It later emerged that a taxi driver who took the pilot to the airport reported to authorities before take-off that he appeared to have been drinking. The warning was ignored and the pilot was permitted to take control of the ill-fated flight.

Meanwhile, a Skymark flight from Haneda to Sapporo was delayed by 23 minutes on Wednesday after alcohol was detected on the breath of the aircraft’s American pilot.