Sunday, August 05, 2012

Qantas stops take-off and ejects pilot who had been drinking

A Qantas captain was forced to relinquish the controls of a passenger jet last week just minutes before it was due to take off from Sydney Airport after cabin crew suspected she had been drinking alcohol before the flight. 

Qantas has launched an investigation into the incident after the senior pilot recorded a positive reading for alcohol.

The captain has been withheld from operational duties on full pay, but the airline will not comment on what reading she gave or how soon before the flight she had been drinking.

The incident occurred last Monday as the aircraft was about to depart. Flight attendants on the Boeing 767-300, which can carry as many as 254 passengers, told the airline's flight operations managers they suspected the captain of the plane had been drinking.

The twin-aisle aircraft had been pulled back from the domestic terminal and was moving towards a runway for take-off when Qantas management made the decision to stand down the captain from command of the plane.

The 767 returned to the domestic terminal where the captain was taken off the plane and a replacement pilot found.

It is rare for pilots to be removed from flying for breaching airline procedure. Qantas has a zero-tolerance to pilots recording an alcohol reading of any level. Fewer than 100 of Qantas' 2200 pilots are women.

The investigation into the captain's alcohol reading and removal last Monday is expected to take at least a month.

Qantas has informed Australia's air-safety regulator, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, of the incident. However, it is considered a matter for Qantas rather than the regulator because the testing of the captain was under the auspices of the airline's drug and alcohol management plan.

If it is determined to be a one-off incident, a pilot would be expected to undergo counseling and later a medical assessment to determine whether they are fit to fly.

But if it is a long-term problem, the pilot would be subjected to a rehabilitation program and suspended from duties.

CASA has been conducting random breath tests of pilots, flight attendants and ground crews at airports since 2008. The rate of positive tests is understood to be low.

A Qantas spokesman confirmed a captain had been ''withheld from service for administrative reasons'' last week but he declined to comment further because the matter was under investigation.

A spokesman for CASA said yesterday it would not comment on any specific drug and alcohol testing carried out by an airline. ''Anyone found to be affected by alcohol or drugs while performing, or when they are available to perform, safety-sensitive aviation activities will automatically be suspended from duties,'' he said.

''They are not able to return to duty until they have been medically assessed, undergone rehabilitation if appropriate and given a medical clearance.''

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