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Repeated airline pilot alcohol incidents linked to tight work schedule, stress

Japan Airlines Co. President Yuji Akasaka, right, apologizes during a press conference for the incident in London where a company co-pilot was unable to work due to drinking, in Tokyo's Minato Ward, on Nov. 16, 2018. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

TOKYO -- Misconduct involving pilots and alcohol consumption from multiple airlines have been cropping up one after the other, and the Mainichi Shimbun investigated the state of the industry to trace the cause of the problems.

In October 2018, a male co-pilot who was scheduled to board a Japan Airlines Co. aircraft bound for Tokyo's Haneda Airport was arrested in London by British authorities for testing over the legal limit for alcohol in his system. He was handed 10 months in prison for the incident.

Haneda Airport's international terminal is seen from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter on Oct. 21, 2010, after its official opening. (Mainichi/Masaru Nishimoto)

"Along with the increase in routes and flights, the work done per person has expanded recently," said an aircraft captain in his 40s who is in charge of the controls on an international route of a major airline company. After 11 a.m. one day in December last year, he set off from Narita Airport east of Tokyo toward Mumbai, India. There is a three-and-half-hour time difference between origin and destination, so he arrived at the airport in Mumbai at around 6:30 p.m. local time, 10 p.m. in Japan. By the time he reached his hotel bed, it was already 2 a.m. Japan time.

But the hardest part was the return flight. The flight departed Mumbai for Narita at 8 a.m. (11:30 a.m. Japan time) and landed in Japan the following day after 7 a.m. Along with his co-pilot, the captain had to pull an all-nighter sitting in the cockpit, and he was only able to take breaks to go to the toilet during the close to eight-hour flight.

The pilot flies roundtrip between Japan and the world's urban centers four to five times a month, coming in at a maximum of 90 hours of flight time. However, according to a pilot from the same airline that quit nine years ago, when he was piloting, he only did two to two-and-a-half long-distance international roundtrips monthly. "Back then, it was unheard of for time in the air to exceed 80 hours a month," he said.

In 2010, a fourth runway was opened at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, and the airport itself began full-fledged 24-hour operations. Following these changes, operation hours at regional airports have been extended one after the other in order to attract tourists and business customers from abroad. The number of passengers carried on Haneda's international routes rose to roughly 22.14 million people in 2017. That is a 44 percent increase from the approximately 15.39 million air travelers that passed through in 2009.

A pilot in his 50s with another airline said, "Not only have the number of flights, but late night and early morning shifts have also increased. Due to a shortage of labor, the reality is that each person is working to their absolute limit."

In the case of the arrested pilot in London, his lawyer explained that due to irregular labor hours and other factors, he had developed insomnia, and he had tried to solve the problem using alcohol. Pilots are forced to experience extreme stress when landing aircraft, and it is said to be common for tense nerves to leave them unable to sleep.

According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, there have been a total of 41 cases between January 2013 and the end of November 2018 where a pilot scheduled to fly was discovered to still be under the lingering effects of alcohol. One case led to the complete cancellation of the flight, while 22 caused delays. Following the recent spate of incidents, the ministry plans to introduce rules requiring airlines to administer breathalyzer tests, and to immediately prohibit the pilots who come up positive from flying.

Hiroyuki Kobayashi, a former pilot for Japan Airlines and an airline industry critic, said, "Still being under the influence of alcohol before takeoff is evidence of an inability to manage oneself. When safety is considered, the introduction of standards is crucial." However, he also acknowledged alcohol was indeed effective to relieve stress if imbibed off the clock and in moderation. He worried, "If one ends up with a lack of sleep, then their ability to make judgments in flight is bound to suffer."

Kobayashi continued, "Behind the alcohol problem is the structure of the airline industry that calls for pilots to work under harsh conditions. General safety measures should not end with drinking, but also proper management of exhaustion, stress, sleep and other matters."

(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Wada, General Digital News Center)

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