How drug testing airline pilots is like ‘playing Jenga’

A game of Jenga. Credit: A. Aleksandravicius / Getty Images

Combined ShapeCaption
A game of Jenga. Credit: A. Aleksandravicius / Getty Images

Federally-required random drug testing for pilots and other safety-sensitive employees can cause logistical problems for airlines, according to industry experts interviewed by the Dayton Daily News.

One expert compared drug testing pilots to the logistical equivalent of playing Jenga, the tower-stacking game where the removal of one block could bring down the whole structure.

Removing a pilot from a flight for testing could impact dozens of other flights and on-time performance, causing lost revenue and logistical problems, said Jay Ratliff, a former general manager for Northwest Airlines at Dayton International Airport.

MORE: Spirit Airlines pilot may not have been drug tested in years

But Federal Aviation Administration guidance states it’s unacceptable to excuse employees from random drug testing based on operational concerns, such as a change in a flight schedule.

A pilot’s day could begin in Dayton with stops in Dallas, Miami, Atlanta and Chicago, Ratliff said as a hypothetical example. But sending a pilot to drug testing during the line of flight could either delay subsequent flights, or force the carrier to find another pilot.

“If you’re pulled for drug testing half-way through the run in, say, Dallas, then we have to find another pilot,” he said.

MORE: More airline pilots testing positive for drug use

Alternatively, airlines could schedule tests during longer layovers, said Shawn Pruchnicki, an Ohio State University Center for Aviation Studies lecturer, pharmacist trained in toxicology, and former pilot for Comair, a now-defunct subsidiary of Delta Air Lines.

“The times I got drug tested it was in the middle of the trip,” Pruchnicki said. “If you had real tight turns (it would delay the flight) … You’d want to snag people who have an hour or an hour and a half” layover.

MORE: Children find Spirit Airlines pilot, wife dead in apparent overdose

The newspaper’s reporting comes following the March 16 death of Spirit Airlines pilot Brian Halye, who is suspected of overdosing on fentanyl, according to the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office. He and wife Courtney Halye were found dead in their bedroom by their children.

Investigators have not said whether they believe Brian Halye used illicit drugs before his death. Spirit Airlines has not said whether it ever tested Halye for drugs in his nine-year employment with the ultra low-cost carrier.

MORE: FAA, Spirit Airlines ‘quickly’ learned of pilot’s death

Federal regulations require carriers to test 25 percent of “safety sensitive” employees in a given year.

In 2015, more than 1,500 drug tests were verified positive out of more than 218,000 tests on safety sensitive employees, which include pilots, mechanics, flight instructors, flight attendants, aircraft dispatchers, ground security coordinators, non-TSA aviation screeners, and non-FAA/military air traffic controllers.

About the Author