Monday, January 12, 2009

Bottle to Throttle

Two things happened recently to prompt this post. One, I carry with me on the road a reusable water bottle - so I do not contribute to the landfill (and empty my pockets on $2 bottles in airports!). I opened the drinking tube part of it while airborne on a commercial flight and because of the pressure differential, it sprayed a bit, over me and the person sitting next to me. The other passenger joked, "Must be the vodka in there making it do that!" I shushed him jokingly, but I was halfway serious. That's all I need, is some other concerned passenger accusing me of carrying and/or drinking alcohol on duty (I was in uniform).

Which leads me to the other event. In case you haven't heard, a Southwest Airlines pilot was confronted by a couple of passengers because they thought he smelled of alcohol. News story from the Columbus Dispatch. Or watch the newscast.

I am not making any judgement calls here when I say that it was the opinion of the onlookers that the pilot may have been impaired. They felt that this was their moral obligation to say something to the pilot. What I want to address is: what is the legal obligation regarding a pilot and alchohol use?


§ 91.17 Alcohol or drugs.
(a) No person may act or attempt to act as a crewmember of a civil aircraft—
(1) Within 8 hours after the consumption of any alcoholic beverage; (where we get the "bottle to throttle" slang term)
(2) While under the influence of alcohol;
(3) While using any drug that affects the person's faculties in any way contrary to safety; or
(4) While having an alcohol concentration of 0.04 or greater in a blood or breath specimen. Alcohol concentration means grams of alcohol per deciliter of blood or grams of alcohol per 210 liters of breath.
(b) Except in an emergency, no pilot of a civil aircraft may allow a person who appears to be intoxicated or who demonstrates by manner or physical indications that the individual is under the influence of drugs (except a medical patient under proper care) to be carried in that aircraft.
(c) A crewmember shall do the following:
(1) On request of a law enforcement officer, submit to a test to indicate the alcohol concentration in the blood or breath, when—

(i) The law enforcement officer is authorized under State or local law to conduct the test or to have the test conducted; and
(ii) The law enforcement officer is requesting submission to the test to investigate a suspected violation of State or local law governing the same or substantially similar conduct prohibited by paragraph (a)(1), (a)(2), or (a)(4) of this section.
(2) Whenever the FAA has a reasonable basis to believe that a person may have violated paragraph (a)(1), (a)(2), or (a)(4) of this section, on request of the FAA, that person must furnish to the FAA the results, or authorize any clinic, hospital, or doctor, or other person to release to the FAA, the results of each test taken within 4 hours after acting or attempting to act as a crewmember that indicates an alcohol concentration in the blood or breath specimen.
(d) Whenever the Administrator has a reasonable basis to believe that a person may have violated paragraph (a)(3) of this section, that person shall, upon request by the Administrator, furnish the Administrator, or authorize any clinic, hospital, doctor, or other person to release to the Administrator, the results of each test taken within 4 hours after acting or attempting to act as a crewmember that indicates the presence of any drugs in the body.
(e) Any test information obtained by the Administrator under paragraph (c) or (d) of this section may be evaluated in determining a person's qualifications for any airman certificate or possible violations of this chapter and may be used as evidence in any legal proceeding under section 602, 609, or 901 of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958.
[Doc. No. 18334, 54 FR 34292, Aug. 18, 1989, as amended by Amdt. 91–291, June 21, 2006]

Note that paragraph (2) states: While under the influence of alcohol. That means that even though it may have been more than 8 hours since this pilot (or any other pilot - or person for that matter), he may still be under the influence. The news story states that the pilot admitted to partying "pretty hard" the night before so alcohol still could be in his system. Even though he may comply with the 8 hour bottle to throttle rule, he may still be under the influence. Regardless, the pilot called in sick before performing any flight duties, so there it may be that no further action will be taken under this regulation.

Further, on the website, they discuss a "hangover effect," produced by alcoholic beverages after the acute intoxication has worn off, may be just as dangerous as the intoxication itself. Symptoms commonly associated with a hangover are headache, dizziness, dry mouth, stuffy nose, fatigue, upset stomach, irritability, impaired judgment, and increased sensitivity to bright light. A pilot with these symptoms would certainly not be fit to safely operate an aircraft. In addition, such a pilot could readily be perceived as being "under the influence of alcohol."

The doctors have published the following General Recommendations:

1. As a minimum, adhere to all the guidelines of CFR 91.17:
2. 8 hours from "bottle to throttle"
3. do not fly while under the influence of alcohol
4. do not fly while using any drug that may adversely affect safety
5. A more conservative approach is to wait 24 hours from the last use of alcohol before flying. This is especially true if intoxication occurred or if you plan to fly IFR. Cold showers, drinking black coffee, or breathing 100% oxygen cannot speed up the elimination of alcohol from the body. 6. Consider the effects of a hangover. Eight hours from "bottle to throttle" does not mean you are in the best physical condition to fly, or that your blood alcohol concentration is below the legal limits.
7. Recognize the hazards of combining alcohol consumption and flying.
8. Use good judgment. Your life and the lives of your passengers are at risk if you drink and fly.


  1. I can't tell you HOW many times I've fallen prey to the spraying water bottle! I, too, carry re-usable ones, and they're great for the airlines because you can fill them after you pass through security! It must have taken me 10 sprays to remember to unscrew the lid to release the pressure before opening the straw!

  2. That's not as good as taking a coke up to about 5,000 ft or so, then cracking it open.

    At least water dries quickly and cleanly...

  3. Anonymous10:40 PM

    It's funny how pilots (at least the good ones) worry about drinking / public perception. I was cleaning up the airplane today after a flight when some beer spilled on me, my first thought was "Great, I just assured myself a ramp check" I didn't get one of course, but I was worried that everyone would think the smell came from my consumption of alcohol, not from the cleaning of it.