x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Drug and alcohol testing for UAE airlines staff

The civil aviation authority has introduced random testing for essential staff.

DUBAI // Random alcohol and drug tests for local airline pilots and other staff performing "sensitive safety functions" are to be introduced by the UAE's civil aviation authority.

Many airlines follow this practice, which the General Civil Aviation Authority recommended in draft regulations four years ago. It will become an official requirement in November.

The carriers will be mandated to test at least one fifth of certain employees - that is, pilots, cabin crew, air-traffic controllers and ground engineers - at a frequency of their choosing, no less than once a year.

"From this year it will be effective," said Dr Nabila al Awadhi, aeromedical inspector for the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA). "We will monitor the testing results."

She declined to say how many instances of drug or alcohol use have been recorded.

With 7,000 pilots working for local airlines, even a small instance of substance abuse could pose a problem, she said. And with such a diverse pool of aviation workers - coming from more than 150 countries - she said it was hard to know how common the issue might be.

"The prevalence of alcohol and drug use is high worldwide. Here, we don't have any national statistics regarding this," she said. "But by implementing this, we will find them."

Many countries such as the UK do not administer random tests, which can be costly to administer among a large staff. Instead they rely on "reasonable suspicion", which can net a higher percentage of positives.

In more than 100,000 random drug tests conducted in the US aviation industry in 2001, 0.60 per cent of employees tested positive, according to Paul Howgill, the head of aviation medicine training of the UK civil aviation authority, in a presentation in the UAE this week.

Among those chosen for reasonable suspicion, 9.4 per cent tested positive.

Aviation workers who violate the alcohol and drug rules will lose their jobs, but those who admit abuse would receive help, said Dr Awadhi. "The aim of this policy is not punitive. It is supportive."

A pilot for Emirates Airline, who declined to be named because he was not authorised to speak, said that since testing started about four years ago, he has been selected once. It was his only test in nearly 20 years as a pilot, most of them with Emirates, he said.

He said he was not aware of a problem of colleagues showing up under the influence, even if they might have had a drink within 12 hours before work, the limit set by the company.

"If you drink 11 hours and 59 minutes before - one glass of beer or wine - it's impossible someone will be able to trace that. And you can push this limit to six hours, five hours," he said.

But for anyone caught above the limit, "you are going to get fired 100 per cent," he said.

The major UAE carriers, Etihad Airways and Emirates Airline, did not respond to requests for comment.

chuang@thenational.ae