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Opinion Piece: In the clouds and on the ground – safeguarding aviation with comprehensive substance testing

By Rhys Evans, Managing Director at ALCO-Safe

A recent alarming incident involving an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot attempting to disable the plane’s engines has brought the need for comprehensive drug and alcohol testing in the aviation industry into the spotlight. This incident, coupled with others that have made headlines over the years, illustrates the urgent requirement for rigorous substance testing protocols to be put in place for all airline staff to ensure the safety and security of passengers, crew members, and the aircraft itself.

The role of deterrence and intervention

In the Alaska Airlines incident, the pilot’s actions were influenced by a combination of drug use and sleep deprivation. To prevent such catastrophic situations, it is essential to implement comprehensive and consistent drug and alcohol testing programmes for all aviation personnel, including pilots, flight attendants, ground staff as well as safety-sensitive crew such as aircraft mechanics and engineers. Drug and alcohol tests can serve as a powerful deterrent, discouraging individuals from engaging in risky behaviour. Beyond deterrence, these tests identify individuals who may be struggling with substance abuse issues, offering them an opportunity for intervention and support before their problems escalate and endanger lives. Mandatory testing ensures that those with substance abuse problems are kept out of critical aviation roles until they are fit to resume their duties.

As the Alaska Airlines case shows, the consequences of inadequate testing can be dire, with the potential for the loss of lives and property. As such, the aviation industry needs to prioritise the implementation of rigorous testing measures to maintain the highest standards of safety, where so many lives are at stake. Recent incidents from various airlines worldwide, including a British Airways flight that was delayed due to cabin crew involved in a drug-fuelled escapade, as well as pilots engaging in drug use during their stopovers, highlight the widespread issue of substance abuse within the aviation industry. The risks associated with drug and alcohol use among aviation professionals are particularly concerning given their role in flying and maintaining aircraft.

Taking regulatory steps toward safety

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) Safety Audit for Ground Operations (ISAGO) has become a key player in ensuring global safety standards within the aviation industry. The recent inclusion of drug and alcohol testing as a requirement for compliance with the International Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) demonstrates a growing commitment to enhancing safety measures. Airlines operating out of South Africa, for example, are now mandated by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) to adhere to IOSA regulations, leading to an increase in drug and alcohol testing among aviation personnel.

To address the issue systematically, the aviation industry must collaborate with regulatory authorities and unions to ensure effective and fair drug testing policies. Regulatory bodies such as IOSA play a crucial role in setting standards that prioritise safety, and airlines should work closely with unions to communicate the necessity of these measures. Creating awareness among employees about the importance of compliance with IOSA and the safety benefits of drug and alcohol testing will foster a more cooperative approach.

Balancing privacy and safety

When implementing drug and alcohol testing in the aviation industry, it will be necessary to balance the need for safety with the privacy rights of airline employees. However, although privacy is an important right, when individual actions can have potentially severe consequences on the safety of passengers, the right to privacy is justifiably curtailed. Pre-employment testing, as mandated by IOSA, sets the expectation from the outset, ensuring that employees are aware of and consent to these measures as part of their employment contract.

Streamlining testing processes

In terms of testing advancements, the aviation industry can benefit from technological innovations such as the SoToxa saliva drug test analyser, a handheld instrument designed for rapid drug screening and detection in oral fluid. This device not only provides accurate and quick results but also facilitates easy reporting and data management with the ability to connect the analyser to a computer for seamless reporting to regulatory authorities, which enhances transparency and accountability through compliance. Furthermore, when it comes to alcohol testing, breathalysers that provide an instant digital result and an immediate print out for evidentiary purposes are effective in mitigating occurrences of reporting for duty while under the influence of alcohol.

Soaring to new heights, safely

Ultimately, drug and alcohol testing in the aviation industry is not only a regulatory requirement but an indispensable element in safeguarding the lives of passengers and maintaining the industry’s integrity. By prioritising safety, collaborating with regulatory bodies and unions, and embracing technological testing advancements, the aviation industry can successfully ensure safe skies for all.