Delta Pilot: Another Media and PR Cluster Bomb

Image: RuthAS

Last night, a Delta pilot was arrested after a crew member reported that he was drunk. Dutch authorities detained him just before his 196-passenger flight was supposed to take off from Amsterdam to Newark. The Telegraph has more:

The pilot, identified only as a 52-year-old from Woodbury, New Jersey, USA, was taken into custody in the cockpit of his plane. A breath test found he had a blood-alcohol content of 0.023 percent, a fraction above the legal threshold for intoxication in the Netherlands.

The pilot paid a $911 fine and has been suspended for Delta’s investigation. Dutch law prohibits flight-crew members from imbibing alcohol within 10 hours of take-off. The aircraft had pulled back from the gate and was en-route to the runway when the police arrived and boarded it.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution talks about alcohol limits in aviation and in the Netherlands:

The 52-year-old captain from Woodbury, N.J., blew a .023 percent blood alcohol level in a breath test, according to the National Police Corps in Amsterdam. That level is just above the legal limit in the Netherlands, which has some of the toughest drunk driving laws in Europe.

Delta issued a statement on its website and then posted via Twitter, saying Flight No. 35 was canceled “out of concern that a crew member appeared to be unfit for duty.” The airline said its alcohol policy “is among the strictest in the industry and we have no tolerance for violations.”

The captain has been suspended pending the outcome of investigations by the airline and the Netherlands, Delta said. Passengers were reassigned to other flights.

While the Netherlands has harsh drunk driving laws, they are not as tough as the FAA’s. The agency, which is looking into this incident, says a pilot cannot fly a plane with a blood alcohol level higher than .018.

Every year, the media calls out some drunk pilot for almost recklessly endangering hundreds of passengers in a flight. Earlier this month, an crew member falsely suspected an American Airlines pilot of being drunk before takeoff. Last November, a United Airlines pilot was arrested at Heathrow for being over the legal alcohol limit.

Do pilots drink more on the job than your average Joe, or do they just get exponentially more publicity when they do show up buzzed? The job’s stringent alcohol requirements and high visibility make me suspect the latter. Herb Kelleher showing up for a Southwest board meeting after a few nips of Wild Turkey would lead to vastly different results than a flight attendant catching a Southwest pilot in the cockpit with his flask.

When a pilot gets caught over the limit, the news media instantly has a good story with all kinds of fearful, dramatic connotations: A pilot endangering lives, a pilot with an alcohol problem, people dying in a plane crash. Even if none of these things actually happened, the subconscious elements are there. Readers gobble up that kind of story.

When the story gets out, airlines scramble to protect their reputations, perhaps make an example of the pilot. Even if the pilot’s actual incursion was minor–he had a margarita six hours before flying, say–the nature of his situation inevitably lends itself to a media and PR cluster bomb.

This diverts attention away from other, more boring airline issues, like why airline pilots might engage in the risky behavior of drinking before a flight, or how new tarmac rules screwed travelers in July. But those lame-duck issues don’t have the adventure cred that a Drunk Pilot Threatening Hundreds of Passengers does.

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Written by Drea Knufken

Drea Knufken

Currently, I create and execute content- and PR strategies for clients, including thought leadership and messaging. I also ghostwrite and produce press releases, white papers, case studies and other collateral.