Mon, Dec 29, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Growing number of pilots turn to drink to cope with stress

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Soaring stress levels among commercial airline pilots are leading to an alarming rise in drinking problems.

Pressure caused by long hours, cost-cutting following the growth of no-frills airlines and security measures to combat terrorism have all added to the numbers of those turning to alcohol, according to pilots, airline staff and aviation experts.

One stewardess revealed how heavy drinking the night before a flight was not uncommon. The 24-year-old from Manchester, who works for a large international airline, said: "I have been taken out by a pilot who has drunk half a bottle of wine at dinner, had a few beers and shooters and then gone back to his room with a bottle of vodka. He was due to fly again the following day."

One ex-pilot, who now specializes in the human factors associated with flight, said: "The Civil Aviation Authority are very concerned -- everything is about money, cutting costs and pushing hours up. It leads to fatigue, which itself can be highly dangerous and it leads to an increased prevalence of alcoholism. People succumb to stress and deal with it in the classic way -- by abusing themselves."

The revelations come a week after a Virgin Atlantic pilot was accused of being drunk in charge of a jumbo jet. Captain Richard Harwell, 55, has been released on bail and is due to appear in court next February. Only a month earlier two British Airways pilots resigned after being arrested at Oslo airport on suspicion of being drunk.

But the deeper problem appears not to be that of pilots being drunk while flying but the numbers who are turning to alcohol to deal with the strains of the job. The industry is trying to ensure that new pilots are less likely to fall into the trap. Those training are now taught about how to keep an eye out if a colleague appears to be having problems. Notes given out to students include things to watch out for such as "drinking alone, gulping down the first drink, morning shakes and a high tolerance to alcohol."

Kate Keenan, a business psychologist who specializes in mental health and alcohol, said: "With the remote working that pilots do with no checks, people are more likely to slip into a habit without anyone realizing. Add this to the long hours and stress and you can see why this job carries a large risk of alcoholism. People need to be educated to really know how much alcohol will affect them and what a unit actually is. Companies are screaming for random testing, but they have to support workers first."

The British Air Line Pilots' Association (Balpa) says there needs to be a more co-operative system. Jim McAuslan, Balpa's general secretary, said: "This is our number one priority. We strongly believe there should be a system where any pilot can try and persuade another to go to a neutral board where they don't lose their job but get help. In the UK admitting to being an alcoholic would result in the sack.

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