Flying high

Our aviation regulator is unable to establish a system to catch those pilots indulging in drug or alcohol abuse


Kamal Siddiqi November 15, 2015
The writer is Editor of The Express Tribune

Earlier this month, flight NL-142 carrying 121 passengers and crew, made an emergency landing at Lahore airport. While there were no casualties, at least 10 passengers suffered minor injuries. Soon after, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said the captain of the flight, was drunk and fatigued as he flew the plane.

The CAA put forward a preliminary report which revealed that the pilot in command had an unacceptable level of blood alcohol and lactate that indicated the pilot was fatigued.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) reports that there is a fatal accident ratio of one per million flights, and that the main cause is Pilot In Command error.

Years of simulator studies by US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and research conducted by Stanford University’s Aviation safety Laboratory on effects of alcohol consumption have established that impairment occurs at surprisingly lower levels.

In our country, the primary role of CAA is its regulatory function of acting on behalf of ICAO to ensure that aircraft owned or leased by airlines under its regulatory control or foreign airlines operating into Pakistan have structural integrity with all essential avionics, engines, landing gear, flight controls, weather radar, onboard emergency equipment and essential navigation equipment necessary for safe conduct of flights.

Issuance of licenses such as ALTP (Airline Transport Pilots) License and Aircraft Engineers License, Flight Operations Officers License, Trim Sheet License and others are issued to individuals who meet minimum essential professional competence standards and required medical fitness with history of no addiction to alcohol or drug abuse and have no criminal record.

Our aviation regulator is unable to establish a system to catch those pilots who are indulging in drug or alcohol abuse, leaving this to other countries to monitor instead. For example, PIA pilot Capt Irfan Faiz was caught at Bradford Airport in September 2013, after he had reported for duty to operate PK 776 to Islamabad with alcohol level well above the prescribed limit.

He was charged with a criminal offence under British Law for reporting under influence of alcohol thereby endangering lives of 180 passengers, other aircraft, the airport and the airspace which he would have flown out to on takeoff.

CAA which had issued him the license should have proceeded with disciplinary action by revoking or cancelling it after having received results of the alcohol concentration report.  Also, PIA should have proceeded in accordance with its own rules and laws of Pakistan. But this did not happen.

One of the regulatory functions of CAA is also to carry out random checks for drug and alcohol abuse on airline pilots, technicians and other licensed operational staff so that flight safety is not compromised or jeopardised.  This does not happen as frequently as it should.

Moreover, it is conflict of interest of professional inspectors and senior executives who, while being on payroll of airlines under its regulatory control, are assigned important sensitive assignments which involve regulatory checks on airlines under the jurisdiction of the CAA.

As a result, lack of credible accident investigations have not been carried in recent fatal accidents and incidents, with net result that next of kin still await proper compensation, despite having lost their dear ones several years ago.

Since CAA has an abundance of funds it must have on its payroll Flight Safety Inspectors who neither receive any remuneration or benefits from airlines whose pilots, engineers and air worthiness of aircraft they are required to inspect.

It must also have certified doctors and medical staff to carry out random check of all pilots and staff employed by airlines.

All Ground Handling Agencies, Cargo Agencies involved in handling of aircraft and booking of air cargo must be regulated by the CAA. The enforcement of strict corporate ethics like Conflict of Interest, with zero tolerance for any criminal history, is a basic necessity for any individual assigned regulatory duty.

For example, CAA should check why private airlines are hiring pilots who have retired from PIA or sacked for submitting fake degrees, criminal activity or accused of sexual harassment or money laundering etc  - is it only because it saves them money on training. Much needs to be done.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 16th, 2015.

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COMMENTS (4)

Afzaal Ansari | 5 years ago | Reply for safety of lives, it is required the system to be paradigm with rigorous and relentless along with constructive accountability with accountable professional staff in CAA
Ali | 5 years ago | Reply @Parvez: When you set a thief to catch a thief, they join hands and indulge in loot and plunder. Congrats Kamal and Tribune for taking up an issue of public interest, since the govt does not have this on its priority. Given the dismal performance of CAA and our airlines, I would not be shocked by another ban on aviation industry.
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