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Ministry to tighten alcohol limits after JAL pilot's arrest in Britain

TOKYO -- The transport ministry announced on Nov. 6 that it will set up a panel of medical and other experts to tighten alcohol limits for airline crews following the arrest of a Japan Airlines co-pilot by British police after alcohol was detected in his body beyond local limits.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism said the panel will be launched as early as mid-November. "We would like to hold a panel meeting as soon as we can and draw up an interim report possibly by the end of the year," transport minister Keiichi Ishii told a press conference after a Cabinet meeting on Nov. 6.

The ministry has instructed JAL to report the results of its investigation into the incident, as well as its countermeasures to prevent a recurrence. The male co-pilot, 42, was arrested shortly before his assignment on a flight from Heathrow Airport in London to Tokyo's Haneda International Airport on Oct. 29 Japan time.

The panel will look into introducing new standards for breath alcohol content and mandating airlines to conduct pre-flight checks on crews. Debate is expected to center on introducing far tighter criteria than those for driving under the influence at 0.15 milligrams or more of alcohol per liter of exhaled breath under Japan's Road Traffic Act.

The breath test on the JAL co-pilot found 0.93 milligrams of alcohol per liter of exhalation, more than 10 times the legal standard in Britain of 0.09 milligrams per liter. A subsequent blood test also found him with more than nine times the alcohol concentration limits under British law.

While JAL voluntarily conducts alcohol tests on pilots before international and domestic flights, an alcohol checking device at its office at Heathrow Airport failed to detect the high alcohol concentrations in the co-pilot.

The two pilots who were supposed to fly with him were also present at the test, but they testified that they had sensed no abnormalities before the co-pilot's arrest. The bus driver transporting the crew to the plane recognized the smell of liquor on the man, leading to the exposure of the co-pilot's excessive drinking. The flight he was about to co-pilot was delayed by 1 hour and 9 minutes, and was flown by the two pilots alone.

Regarding why the co-pilot managed to slip through the in-house alcohol test, JAL believes that the way he breathed on a checker may have been inappropriate.

In a bid to prevent a recurrence, JAL will introduce stricter checkers at its offices at airports overseas possibly by the end of this month -- the same type that are already in place at its domestic offices. The new types of checkers require subjects to blow into the devices directly using a straw.

According to the transport ministry, current domestic regulations prohibit airline crews from drinking within eight hours before boarding, but there are no numerical standards for breath alcohol concentrations.

JAL and other carriers have introduced stricter in-house criteria for pre-flight alcohol consumption, raising the limit of no-drink hours from eight to 12 hours before boarding and have conducted voluntary alcohol tests.

JAL's announcement of the co-pilot's arrest came on the heels of a disclosure by All Nippon Airways on Oct. 31 that five domestic flights were delayed due to excessive drinking of alcohol by a pilot the night before his flight.

(Japanese original by Norihito Hanamure, City News Department)

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