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FAA Program Helps Pilots Address Alcohol Abuse Problems

Although federal law says pilots may not consume alcoholic beverages fewer than eight hours before flying, the National Institute for Alcoholism Research has estimated that alcohol abuse and dependence affects approximately five to eight percent of all pilots.  Without a program that allows pilots to get help for alcohol abuse and holds their positions until they can return to work, the condition would remain underground in all but the most obvious circumstances. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has developed such a program to identify and address alcohol abuse problems before they cause major problems for pilots and their passengers. 

Q: How did this program get started?
 In the early 1970s, the Human Intervention Motivation Study (HIMS) grew out of a grant from the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.  The study found that, with proper treatment, the airline pilot rehabilitation rate was successful (92 to 95 percent) and cost-effective.  Eventually, the FAA took over the program.  It allows coworkers, flight attendants and co-pilots to identify crewmembers with perceived problems, without worrying about ending colleagues’ careers.

Q: Is information about pilot’s alcohol abuse made public?
 No.  Pilots must be assured that their treatment information is held in strictest confidence.  Medical record keeping is left to the medical professionals directly involved in the individual case where privileged communication is legally protected.  There is no label identifying a participating pilot.

Q: How does the program work?
After an initial intervention, the pilot takes a medical leave of absence and undergoes evaluation and a minimum of 28 days in an inpatient treatment program.  An intensive outpatient treatment program follows.   Generally, the pilot must complete 90 days of therapy, including daily participation in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) with the required assistance of an AA sponsor, as well as a pilot peer and company sponsor.  The pilot also must take psychological tests.  A senior aviation medical examiner acts as an independent medical sponsor, participates in the pilot’s aftercare program and meets regularly with the pilot.  A trained peer pilot also supports the recovering pilot.

Once in treatment, the pilot must get medical recertification.  The pilot unions work with management and the FAA to assess, treat, and gain medical clearance (within FAA standards) for the recovering pilot.  The pilot may return to flying only after the FAA medical division has issued a special medical certificate.  Also, any pilot whose certificate has been revoked or suspended must meet certain additional licensing requirements (such as written tests, ground school and check rides) before regaining a license to fly.  To fly an aircraft, every pilot must have both a medical certification and a pilot’s license.

Only after all of the above steps have been completed will a special issuance medical certification packet be forwarded to the FAA, usually about a year after intervention.  During treatment and the recertification process, the pilot may not fly an aircraft. 

Q: How effective has this program been?
In 2004, the FAA issued or followed 625,011 general aviation, corporate and airline medical certifications.  In the same year, 1,875 special certificates were approved for pilots treated for alcoholism.  The Aviation Medicine Advisory Service found that, of the HIMS program participants, the relapse rate was approximately 10 percent over a three-year period.  Because HIMS is an airline- and pilot union-sponsored program, not all pilots with alcohol-related problems participate.  Currently, no specific program exists for other forms of substance abuse.
Q: What does the FAA do to keep pilots from flying while under the influence?
 The FAA checks the driver’s record of every pilot who applies for a medical certificate.  Pilots must report any alcohol- or drug-related traffic offense on the Airman’s Medical Application, to the FAA Securities Division within 60 days of the offense, and to the Aeromedical Certification Division on every  future medical application.  Even if the court has downgraded a traffic offense to some offense that doesn’t mention intoxication, it is still considered alcohol-related.  Pilots who falsify the application may lose both their medical and pilot certificates.


Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA).  This article was prepared by attorney Donato J. Borrillo MD, JD, a physician with the ProMedica Health System, a licensed attorney and a commercial pilot.

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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