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Editorial: Entire civil aviation industry must battle drinking by pilots

Japan has recently seen a spate of incidents in which alcohol has been detected in airline pilots' breath in pre-flight tests. The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry recently issued a second business improvement order to Japan Airlines Co. (JAL), one of Japan's two major airlines, over a series of such incidents, following a similar order in December 2018.

It is the first time that the ministry has issued two improvement orders to a single airline over the same problem. JAL has announced that it will slash the remuneration of all board members as a punitive measure. If drinking triggered an airplane accident, it could result in a catastrophe. The problem is therefore serious.

The transport ministry's first business improvement order to JAL followed an incident in which a co-pilot was arrested in Britain in October 2018 after consuming a large amount of alcohol prior to a flight. Problems involving pre-flight breath tests were also uncovered.

In spite of this, excessive amounts of alcohol have been found in the breath of pilots in three cases since April this year. In at least one case, alcohol was detected in the breath of a captain -- a figure who is supposed to supervise subordinates. The transport ministry pointed out that countermeasures taken by the airline have been ineffective.

It stands to reason that pilots must practice self-management. The co-pilot who was arrested in Britain has now been stripped of his pilot's license. At the same time, it is essential for airline carriers to thoroughly educate their pilots and other employees. After being slapped with the first business improvement order, JAL instructed its pilots to warn each other against drinking prior to flights. This measure was far from adequate.

The problem is not limited to JAL. At other companies, similar incidents have come to light one after another, and four other carriers including Skymark Airlines Inc. have received business improvement advisories or severe reprimands. The civil aviation industry as a whole should step up measures to prevent pilots from drinking ahead of flights.

Since the problem of alcohol consumption came to light last year, each airline has worked out specific standards for pilots' drinking. In January 2019, the transport ministry made it compulsory for airlines to conduct breath tests before and after flights and bar pilots from flights if alcohol is detected in their breath. The ministry is also set to prohibit pilots from drinking any alcohol during the eight-hour period before their flights and from drinking excessively even before that period. It is only natural for the government regulator to enforce strict regulations such as these.

At the same time, sufficient attention should be paid to pilots' working environment. As of 2018, there were roughly 6,500 pilots working in the civil aviation sector in Japan, but the ministry estimates that up to 7,300 pilots will be needed in 2022. In anticipation of the expansion of low-cost carriers and an increase in the number of visitors from overseas, concerns have been raised over a shortage of pilots.

Under the circumstances, critics have pointed out that work schedules for pilots are growing tighter. Pilots of international flights tend to have a shortage of sleep due to jet lag. It has been pointed out that the increasingly severe working environment has led pilots to drink more alcohol.

Exhaustion, stress and a loss of sleep could trigger an accident. Drinking problems should be considered in the context of health management measures for pilots.

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