Human Factors In Aviation » Jet Owner Group

Alcohol and Human Factors in Aviation: Legal ≠ Safe In Far Too Many Cases

Human factors in aviation may still be in its infancy.

As the last frontier of true risk it is where all of the focus is today.

And so long as we are talking about humans, we might as well discuss something they love – booze. Alcohol is everywhere, legal, socially acceptable and punctuates many days for many people.

Sure you don’t want this to be a habit – a regular thing, or a necessary tool to unwind. Alas, in many places and with many people it is just that.

It is everywhere, and it has been for thousands of years. And we live in an era of more pressure, anxiety, circadian rhythm strain and other factors that drive us to drink.

The History

The FAA originally began to address human factors in aviation with “the dirty dozen.” And stress was one that easily led to booze – a safe way to self medicate after a normal or punishing day.

But there is no need to over-simplify the history, since humans and alcohol have been together for a long time. Even elephants ferment stuff in their bellies and do brazen things they might later regret. This is the magic of anaerobic digestion – booze. Find some yeast, some fruity sugar juice and lock them away in an airtight container for a month. Any caveman will tell you – good times await.

But booze and flying is a serious subject. And since we are in the serious subject business of “no one has really talked about it this way before” space, it is squarely in our safety wheelhouse.

The history of aviators and booze is also old and full of lore. Adolf Galland, one of Germany’s WWII aces was known to regularly tank up on red wine with raw eggs beaten into the glass. [1] How else do you face another day at the office charging off to duel with Spitfires? When facing human loss and morale problems it is easy to justify wine for breakfast. Many didn’t expect to see their next birthday. Something soothing, boozy and with enough protein and calories to get you over the Channel made sense.

The Reality Today

But as more evolved creatures we think twice before inoculating our nerves and guts.  Human factors in aviation, after all, is very much about booze. The desire to drink, to numb the pain, comes from the same anxiety fueled space. Alcohol use and abuse, almost universally, is a symptom of something else, not the problem per se. It merely points to the evidence of some much larger, deeper problem.

Organizations, big and small, have a responsibility to create an environment that would identify *why* you might want to drink so much before a flight. In other words, never mind the legal problems, focus on the reason this employee needed to find solace in so much booze.

But we’re a bit unique with booze: In North America, alcohol also comes coupled with a strong puritan association. Booze is a sport, but it also one that is associated with vice, shame, and laziness.

You won’t hear too many Europeans say “hey…c’mon … we’re going out drinking!” as if it were a sport. In the high stress, high anxiety and “go go go” lives of the society that we are, alcohol provides a gentle way to check out. And this escape is mental and physical when the brain gets permission to be calm. The problem becomes, how do we maintain that calm? And can we do it without drinking all the time?

Telling the Truth

All professional aviators must endure medical screening at least once per year (the young ones) and every six months for those of us north of 40. And during this medical screening we might be asked a key question: How many units of alcohol do you consume per week?

The answer is 14. If you like to drink, never put more than 14. That’s two units per day, and by god, anything beyond that and you will trigger all kinds of questions from the FAA, your doctor and beyond. Only deviants drink more than two per day, so please… don’t tell us about your deviance, just mark “14” like everyone else. [2]

The joke here is that for those who drink habitually, 14 is an easy number to blow past. And, odds are, your work performance doesn’t suffer if you have two drinks every night like clockwork. But many doctors know something else. The 14 crowd is composed of a lot of liars, downplayers, and people hiding in their habit. As a widely known number where your health begins to deteriorate, 14 is an easy place to say “oh…what’s the maximum allowable? 14? Oh yeah… then that’s me… I’m about 14.”

When your life is stressful, feels empty, or just isn’t unfurling as you hoped, booze is a great retreat. Odds are you’d rather not think about how much you are drinking, when you drink and why you drink. And here is the most important part, when it comes to human factors in aviation:

Alcohol is usually not the problem by itself – it is just a symptom.

Most heavy drinkers, when faced with questions (that they answer honestly) about drinking realize that there are other things they’d rather be doing with their time, but the motivation to do those things is lacking when you have a habit, of … well… drinking.

Pilots: What to Do and Why

In aviation it is hard to hide from this problem forever. We all have or know of colleagues that have faced “operating while under the influence” when it comes to driving a car. The FAA and society know that such a charge is a clue that there is a problem. Then there’s blood pressure, weight gain, and mental acuity. We need to be honest about our habit for one big reason – alcohol may kill you faster than any other habit you have.

Aviation professionals tend to rely on alcohol for simple reasons that can help us dismantle our habit and look at it more objectively:

  • Ritual: It is a ritual with our colleagues. Who can deny this isn’t fun? We complete the trip together, we are away from home together, those umbrella things are screaming to be put into some rum and fruit and hey! You deserve it!
  • Down time: The job has stretches of down time where you are on the road and everyone around you is having a drink with their dinner, etc. Worse, you are overnighting in a vacation spot where the drinking is amped up for the party goers, and you are on the road and have a 5am show time – ok, maybe just one!
  • Sleep: It settles the nerves and can help you start to sleep. (Too much, however, and you may become the world’s most annoying snoring machine. You’ll also get up to pee, be dehydrated and send your brain into a “hey… can we get more of this while you are sleeping?” panic.)
    Your alcohol policy needs to explore the root of the cause that would lead to the problem in the first place. Typically this will fall under the category of “wellness” which is nearly anathema to our culture. More specifically, the complete opposite of what many small or large flight departments foster. We are a culture of results, we show delayed gratification and we push hard. And we also have high rates of addiction, divorce, mood altering drug use etc. It is our choice to get out in front of this issue – or keep applying the band aid of screening and blaming.

Your alcohol policy should reflect that you know most of the drinking is legal and that they will easily pass a Class I medical. What you are looking for is the “why” behind the drinking – not so much the when and how much.

Here’s a great new way to look at an old problem:

Exercise: When you get done with a trip or have down time – how much exercise do the pilots get? How can you encourage them to try and get some without being a fascist employer, chief pilot or wellness promoter? The typical FAA Class I pilot’s physical condition is a pretty scary site when you compare it with, for example, UPS drivers. But the UPS driver isn’t driving your airplane. Exercise should not be torture – just something you do. You do it because you are actually designed to get a lot more than you are getting and because it can be pleasurable.

Activities: And I mean ones that don’t involve the television. Chess, fishing, golf, museums, walking, and yoga, or anything that stimulates and occupies the mind. Passing the time without a bar and large flat screen TV is the goal. Sports are great – Play them, don’t watch them.

Diet: Getting enough good fats, cruciferous vegetables and fermented foods (Kombucha, yogurt, saeurkraut, kim chi, you name it… ) are not only good for you, but they feed a deep human connection. Our recent ancestors wandered around without refrigeration, so they used fermentation to help food last longer. This bond is deep. Acidic foods are good for our health by way of our intestinal health. Throw in things like dietary fiber (eat your greens) and paying attention to “how you feel” and you’ll see quick turn around in anyone’s health. As challenging as it might be to eat well on the road, consider this: Do you like the way you feel after the burger and fries? Ever noticed that meal precedes a tremendous desire to nap? The hypoglycemic yo yo of our North American diet is no friend to the pilot who is #1 trying to stay awake and #2 trying not to have the brain scream for more sugar at check in time. In many cases, this glycemic roller coaster is quickly satiated with a cocktail that is just begging to be ordered. Plan ahead, eat well and make the temptation, habit and physiological needs less powerful than it has to be.

Hobbies: This is a tough one, but well worth the effort. Hobbies might have dwindled in the age of internet and smart phones / tablets everywhere. Constant information bombardment and a schedule that has you away from home has led hobbies to suffer. A hobby that you genuinely enjoy is a natural antidote to needing a mind numbing solution like a cocktail.

To be clear, I’m no teetotaler. I’m a craft brewer, microbe obsessed hobbyist and live in a part of New Hampshire that has more microbreweries than gas stations. But I also know this – I’m 45 years old and most major studies on the long term effects of alcohol show that alcohol is a contributing factor to disease. Never mind the fact that it is robbing you of valuable hours of sobriety, focus and enjoyment on this planet for the years you have left on it.

Next Steps

If best practices, wellness, and human factors interest you as much as they interest me, don’t hesitate to contact me via or text me at 617 901 3245. We are developing leading edge audit and risk mitigation tools for jet owners, CEOs, HR leaders, insurance and financial underwriters, and flight departments of all sizes. If you believe you can never stop learning about safety, give us a shout.

1 Aces of the Reich: The Making of a Luftwaffe Pilot, p. 195
2 A large segment of the drinking population simply won’t drink outside of designated times where it is forbidden. The purpose of this article is not to out the serious and serial alcohol user, who may sneak it during work, but rather work with the rest of the heavy drinkers who may consume far more than is healthy, and do it legally.