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JAL, ANA to ramp up alcohol tests after suggestion of test cheating, flight delays

Japan Airlines Co. President Yuji Akasaka, in the front, and an official, pictured at rear, provide details on the arrest of a co-pilot by British police for exceeding the limit of alcohol levels in his exhaled breath, at a news conference in Tokyo's Minato Ward, on Nov. 16, 2018. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

TOKYO -- Japan Airlines Co. (JAL) and All Nippon Airways Co. (ANA) are poised to strengthen alcohol testing of pilots following a spate of failed tests, the airlines have announced.

The move follows suggestions from JAL that misuse of alcohol breath-testing devices to give false readings may have been rampant among pilots. In a recent case, British police arrested a JAL co-pilot for exceeding the alcohol limit before he was due to fly from London's Heathrow Airport to Tokyo International Airport at Haneda in late October.

JAL President Yuji Akasaka apologized over the incident in a Nov. 16 news conference in Tokyo. "I feel a strong sense of responsibility for provoking an incident that should have never happened," he said.

The airline has touched on the possibility that methods to cheat breath-testing equipment to pass inspections had been widespread among pilots. According to JAL, examinations conducted on the old type of breath testers found the devices did not detect alcohol depending on the way breath was blown in.

"Honestly, I wonder if everyone was using them correctly," said Toshinori Shin, general manager of JAL's Flight Operations Division. His remark hints that invalid use of the devices may have gone unrestrained.

In the case in London, the driver transporting the crew to the plane recognized the smell of alcohol on the co-pilot, leading to the exposure of his high alcohol level. However, 12 people including two pilots who were supposed to fly with him testified they "did not notice" the alcohol on him despite interacting with him at a close range.

The co-pilot loudly protested that he hadn't been drinking and wished to rinse his mouth when he was called out by a security officer who arrived on the scene in response to a call from the bus driver.

In a separate case, an ANA pilot was unable to fly when it was found he had been drinking, causing delays to five domestic flights in late October. Following the incident, ANA disclosed on Nov. 16 that eight of its pilots had been found to have alcohol levels exceeding the limit of 0.1 milligrams per liter of exhaled breath. In those cases, however, there were no delays to any of the flights, which all departed from Haneda airport.

JAL and ANA submitted measures to prevent recurrences of such incidents to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism on Nov. 16. One preventative measure is a plan to introduce at all airports a new type of detector that provides readings in percentages.

"Competition in the industry has become much fiercer, and pilots have to bear a heavier burden," aviation critic and former JAL captain Hiroyuki Kobayashi said of the incidents. Pilots are experiencing increasing stress due to reduction of their resting time. While Kobayashi believes that alcohol consumption rules need to be tightened, he points out that doing that alone will only create more stress. "We must also come up with measures to take care of stress and exhaustion," he said.

(Japanese original by Norihito Hanamure and Atsushi Matsumoto, City News Department)

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