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drunk pilots
AP/Ronna Gradus
Co-pilot Christopher Hughes is handcuffed
after being sentenced to 2 1/2 years in
prison for operating a jetliner while
drunk.

Bad Behavior of Pilots, Crew and Passengers Poses Big Safety Risk During Flights

October 06, 2009 03:01 PM
by Haley A. Lovett
The heroic efforts of Captain Sullenberger in saving flight 1549 in January is in stark contrast to the behavior of the crew aboard a recent Air India flight, and the extreme danger posed by those who behave badly in the air.

Reckless Behavior on Planes Can Be as Deadly as Mechanical Failure

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This weekend, crewmembers and pilots aboard an Air India flight had an argument escalate to physical fighting while the plane was in flight. The supposed cause of the incident was an allegation of sexual harassment by a crewmember. Not only did the incident showcase highly unprofessional behavior, it also posed a serious risk to all those aboard the plane.

But the Air India case is not the first incident in which the reckless behavior of those on board a plane has put the rest of the passengers and crew in danger.

Last February, as Colgan Air Flight 3407 approached Buffalo, N.Y., the pilot and copilot noticed ice on the windshield, and then, according to the Telegraph, began to chat about their past flights, about the copilot’s head congestion, and about other trivial topics. Regulations prohibit pilots from discussing anything other than the flight at hand when performing complex operations such as landing, and in this case as the two pilots discussed other things, the plane accumulated ice and eventually crashed.

The Buffalo flight was a sad reminder of why federal regulations are in place to help keep pilots focused on the flight. In some more shocking cases, pilots have been accused of showing up to fly while intoxicated. Last October at London’s Heathrow airport a pilot failed a breathalyzer and was arrested while on board a plane he was scheduled to fly. According to The Sun, a member of the ground crew alerted police that the pilot may have been drinking before the flight.

In December of 2008 a New York-bound flight from Moscow was delayed when passengers suspected that the pilot was drunk, reported the Times Online. The pilot was allegedly slurring his speech during pre-flight announcements, and passengers began to demand a new crew, the airline later said that no alcohol was detected in the pilot’s blood and suggested that the pilot may have suffered a stroke before the flight.

Passengers can be just as dangerous to the safety of a flight as the crewmembers, as was proven in July 2008 when a pair of intoxicated passengers tried to open the cabin door during a flight from Greece to England. One woman was also said to have attempted to assault a flight attendant because the crew would no longer serve her alcohol. According to Robin Henry of the Times Online, the women were restrained and the plane made an emergency landing to remove them.

On October 31, 1999, EgyptAir flight 990 disappeared from the radar in a matter of minutes, losing altitude so fast that the radar equipment registered it as a malfunction of the signal. After a two-year investigation that caused a rift in relations between the U.S. and Egypt, the official report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said the accident was caused by a “departure from normal cruise flight and subsequent impact with the Atlantic Ocean as a result of the relief first officer’s flight control inputs.” Essentially, the copilot, left alone for just minutes while the pilot used the restroom, put the plane into a nosedive. Reports from Egypt point to a malfunction of the elevator system in the plane as the cause of the crash, although the NTSB report ruled out that possibility.

Reference: Rules and Regulations for Plane Behavior

Passengers and crew are subject to regulations of their behavior onboard an airplane to ensure the safety of the flight. The Electronic Code of Federal Regulations provides a complete list of those regulations. Rules for pilots include not drinking any alcoholic beverage for the 8 hours leading up to the flight, not using or possessing any controlled substances, notifying passengers of proper safety procedures, and following strict safety and flight procedures during the entire duration of the flight.

Related Stories: Crews and Passengers Can Save Lives Too

After a pilot died during a flight in 2007, passenger Don White was able to land the plane safely.  White, a licensed pilot, had no prior experience flying that particular aircraft and air traffic control talked him through the process of landing.

The highly-publicized emergency landing in the Hudson River of US Airways flight 1549 saved all passengers and crewmembers aboard after the plane hit a flock a geese and lost both engines last January. The captain, Sullenberger, had experience as a fighter pilot that may have helped him safely land the aircraft. It was the first water landing in commerical aviation history.
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