The suspected fentanyl-related overdoses of a Spirit Airlines pilot and his wife in their Centerville home raise a frightening prospect: Has the opioid crisis that is destroying whole families entered the ranks of pilots entrusted with hundreds of lives each day?
Investigators have offered no indication that Brian Halye used drugs while piloting aircraft during his nine years with Spirit Airlines, but a Dayton Daily News examination has uncovered a system in which commercial pilots can go years without being tested for drugs.
Federal Aviation Administration’s guidance to airlines acknowledges the random drug test system established by U.S. code makes it “not uncommon for some employees to be selected several times, while other employees may never be chosen.” Moreover, pilots are not required to be drug tested during annual physical exams.
Of the pilots tested from 2010-2015, 165 were found using one or more drugs, according to the FAA.
Drug use among pilots is an enduring concern at the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency created by Congress to investigate transportation accidents and issue recommendations to improve safety.
In a 2014 study of fatally injured pilots from all forms of civil aviation, the NTSB said patterns of increasing drug use in study pilots “are consistent with observed trends of increasing drug use by the U.S. population in general.”
At the time, the most common illicit drug detected in pilots involved in fatal plane crashes was marijuana, which was found in less than 4 percent of all pilots tested between 2008 and 2012, and was not found in any of the airline pilots tested.
But if Halye died from an accidental overdose of fentanyl, as the Montgomery County Coroner’s office suspects, another concern may have unfolded. With heroin and fentanyl invading the ranks of so much of the general population, is it too much to conclude that it is also present among those flying aircraft?
Ongoing death investigation
Halye and wife Courtney Halye were found by their four children in the bedroom of their Centerville home March 16. The coroner’s office is waiting on toxicology reports but has said the deaths appear to be fentanyl-related. Centerville police also say the drug use appears to be voluntary and consistent with an accidental overdose.
Spirit Airlines, a Florida-based “ultra-low fare” carrier, told the Dayton Daily News that it is “cooperating with any and all agencies investigating this case.”
A spokesman for the carrier would not say when, if ever, the airline tested Halye during his time as a pilot.
The FAA declined to acknowledge whether it is investigating Spirit Airlines following Halye’s death. The agency confirmed it has inspected Spirit Airlines’ drug and alcohol testing program before but would not say how recently.
Thomas Anthony, who has conducted investigations for the FAA, including as manager of the its investigations branch in Washington, D.C., said the Centerville incident would have “for sure” grabbed the attention of the FAA’s Office of Aerospace Medicine.
Gaps in testing
Airlines are required to drug test before employment, after accidents, and with reasonable cause or suspicion. Aside from those circumstances, airlines rely on random drug testing and in-cockpit honor systems to prevent intoxicated flying.
Federal regulations require carriers to drug test 25 percent of “safety sensitive” employees in a given year. For random alcohol testing, the number of tested employees is fewer at 10 percent.
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.
Among pilots alone, 38 tested positive for one or more drugs in 2015. That was higher than at any time during the previous five years but was also a year when more pilots were tested: 51,078. The tests screen for marijuana, cocaine, opiates, phencyclidine (PCP) and amphetamines.
“Overall, the number of positive tests is low considering the number of tests performed each year,” said Elizabeth Cory, an FAA spokeswoman.
A 2014 study from the NTSB examined trends in drug use by fatally injured pilots in commercial and general aviation between 1990 and 2012. None of the pilots in the study flying commercial passenger flights had toxicology findings indicating use of illicit drugs.
But gaps in testing make it difficult to determine how pervasive the problem is.
Random testing requires every safety-sensitive employee have an equal chance of being tested each time selections are made, meaning a pilot could theoretically go an entire career without testing.
There is disagreement, too, over whether pilots should be required to get drug tested during their annual physicals, which is not currently required. Pilots, who often pay for the physicals out-of-pocket, provide urine samples to check for diseases, but not drugs.
“It raises the question of why, in the routine medicals, they’re not screening for drugs,” said Anthony, the former FAA investigator who is director of the University of Southern California Aviation Safety and Security Program. “It would seem to me … if they’re going to take urine samples that it could be screened for drugs.”
Jay Ratliff, a former Dayton International Airport general manager for Northwest Airlines, said he agreed pilots should be tested “more than random.”
“At least at the time of their physicals, if nothing else,” Ratliff said.
But Shawn Pruchnicki, a former Comair pilot who lectures at the Ohio State University Center for Aviation Studies, disagreed, noting among other problems the potential for false-positive results and the possibility that drug test provider will be overwhelmed by the additional workload.
“There are thousands and thousands of these done per day,” Pruchnicki, a pharmacist trained in toxicology, said. “It would completely bog down the medical systems.”
“A lot of times, not all the time, you can tell if someone is under the influence of alcohol or heroin or Vicodin,” Pruchnicki said.
Like playing ‘Jenga’
Federally-required random drug testing for pilots and other safety-sensitive employees can cause logistical problems for airlines, according to industry experts.
Ratliff 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, he said.
FAA 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 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.
Alternatively, airlines could schedule tests during longer layovers, Pruchnicki said.
“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).”
Union contracts restrict
Union contracts can place additional restrictions on pilot drug testing, the Dayton Daily News found. The contracts can say when pilots can be drug tested, and how much the pilot must be compensated for the time spent testing.
On its substance abuse treatment program website, the Air Line Pilots Association acknowledges “Alcoholism and other chemical dependencies are now recognized as part of a disease process. This disease affects commercial pilots to the same degree that it affects the general population.”
The newspaper offered ALPA — the world’s largest pilot union and the one representing Spirit’s employees — the opportunity to provide a spokesperson for an interview, but the union did not. Spirit additionally declined to provide a spokesman to interview.
“If you have a copy of the contract, the policies speak for themselves,” said Paul Berry, a Spirit spokesman, by email.
ORIGINAL REPORT: Children find Spirit Airlines pilot, wife dead in apparent overdose
The contract states pilots “will not be required to take a random test on his days off,” except as required by federal regulations. When pilots are at work, the contract ensures that “in the event a random test interferes with a pilot’s schedule, such pilot will take the random test unless otherwise directed by the company…”
Spirit Airlines pilots are considered on-duty for the drug tests and are paid 0.5 hours above their guaranteed rate for each drug test. The contract further stipulates that pilots whose schedules are adjusted due to tests will be considered a “rescheduled pilot,” enacting other clauses in the contract regarding scheduling and pay.
Opportunities exist for drug- and alcohol-addicted pilots to receive help and become rehabilitated back into the cockpit. ALPA offers a program called HIMS, originally an acronym for the Human Intervention Motivation Study, a 1970s research project by the union funded by the federal government.
The program is a “peer identification and referral system,” meaning it relies on pilots to report the substance abuse.
“The gotcha is you can’t make that declarative statement if you’re already impaired,” Pruchnicki said. “If you’re at the airport and have crossed into TSA’s zone, no one can help you then.”
The Dayton Daily News found a system in which airline pilots could go years without being tested for drugs. This national reporting stems from our local commitment to covering the opioid epidemic — reporting made possible by your subscription.
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