The Spirit Airlines pilot whose death authorities call a likely overdose may not have been drug tested in years, because while federal regulations require airlines to drug test under certain conditions, airline pilots are not drug tested during yearly physical exams.
Centerville police have not indicated whether they believe Brian Halye, 36, had used drugs on occasions prior to his March 16 death alongside his wife, Courtney Halye, 34, who had a history of drug use, according to police reports. Nor has Spirit Airlines said whether and when its 9-year veteran pilot was drug tested, though the company said it follows the law.
“I’d be surprised if he went through there nine years and never got tested, but it could happen,” said Shawn Pruchnicki, an Ohio State University Center for Aviation Studies lecturer, former Comair Airlines pilot and pharmacist who is trained in toxicology. “It’s a numbers game.”
Federal regulations require airlines to administer pre-employment, reasonable suspicion, random, post-accident, reasonable cause and follow-up testing for drugs and alcohol, a Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman said.
“In other words, there are several times during a pilot’s air transport career when he or she will be tested,” said Elizabeth Cory, an FAA spokeswoman, by email.
But the exact operating specifications that cover each airline’s operations, including crew training, testing, and oversight are proprietary, Cory said, and cannot be released under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
A Centerville police spokesman said the department reached out to Spirit Airlines as part of the investigation, but could not elaborate on the nature of contact. Officer John Davis, the department spokesman, said whether the pilot used drugs during his time as an airline pilot is not the main focus of the death investigation.
“That’s a whole other issue for people to worry about,” Davis said. “Right now we’re trying to get a full picture of what led up to (the deaths) and how things occurred.”
Spirit Airlines said the carrier operates “with the highest degree of safety” and is “fully compliant” with FAA and U.S. Department of Transportation regulations regarding drug use and testing on “safety-sensitive employees,” including pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and dispatchers.
“In the event that someone in a safety sensitive position tests positive, they would be immediately removed from their position,” airline spokesman Paul Berry said in an email statement. The airline has not addressed the newspaper’s requests for the dates and results of Halye’s drug tests.
Pilot medical exams required by law might not detect drug use either, experts said.
Pilots must possess valid medical certificates to fly. For pilots under age 40, the first-class medical certificate must be updated every 12 months. In Halye’s case, his last medical certificate was issued in September 2016, at which time he would have been required to undergo a medical exam.
But the corresponding medical exam would not have required a drug test, Pruchnicki and other experts said, as urine collected during the exam isn’t tested to detect drugs, but diseases. The OSU lecturer said the cost of drug testing is cost prohibitive and burdensome to pilots who may be victim to false positive results.
“Just because someone tests positive for a drug does not mean you’re under the influence of it,” said Pruchnicki. “There are thousands and thousands of these (medical exams) done per day … (drug tests) would completely bog down the medical systems.”
“From what we’ve seen, drug abuse of medication, illicit medication, is quite small,” he said. “Just sitting in the cockpit, if you smell alcohol, everything comes to a screeching halt. A lot of times, not all the time, you can tell if someone is under the influence of alcohol or heroin or Vicodin.”
Pruchnicki also said all pilots who die in crashes are screened for drugs, but with the exception of some over-the-counter medications “we’ve just never had an accident where someone has tested positive for anything.”
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Staff Writer Jeremy P. Kelley contributed reporting.