An Eastar Jet airplane sits on a runway in this file photo. A drunken pilot of the budget carrier was caught just before boarding at Gimpo International Airport, Seoul, June 10. / Korea Times
By Kim Rahn
Air travelers now have new concerns when boarding the plane as it could be a “drunken flight,” as intoxicated pilots have recently been caught just before taking their seat in the cockpit.
The aviation authorities are tightening regulations, but it is said the rules are insufficient to completely prevent pilots flying under the influence of alcohol.
The last in a series of drunken pilot crackdowns took place on June 10. An Eastar Jet captain under the influence of alcohol was stopped by inspectors from the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs before boarding a ZE203 plane bound for Jeju from Seoul at 7:05 a.m.
The blood-alcohol concentration of the pilot, who drank the previous night, was 0.042 percent, slightly over the legally-allowed limit of 0.04 percent for those engaged in airplane operation, according to the ministry.
As another pilot had to replace the intoxicated captain, the plane departed 30 minutes late. The ministry suspended the pilot’s aviator license for one month and imposed a 20 million won ($18,700) fine on the airline.
This was the third incident of its kind in a year. An Asiana Airlines pilot and a Korean Air captain failed random onsite alcohol tests at Gimhae International Airport in early May and last October, respectively.
Following the former two cases, the ministry decided to strengthen related regulations. Under the current system pilots found intoxicated before boarding are subject to a month suspension of their license and the carrier will be fined up to 20 million won. Pilots found drinking during flights are punished with up to two years in prison or a 10 million won fine.
“The three cases were of intoxication before a flight and pilots only had their licenses suspended. But we plan to bring criminal charges to the same level of onboard drinking against such pilots of two years imprisonment or heavy fines,” a ministry official said.
The authorities will tighten the permissible blood-alcohol level as well to 0.03 percent. “We are also considering applying different penalties according to the amount of alcohol they drink. For example, we may suspend licenses for 120 days for pilots showing a level of 0.03-0.06 percent, and revoke it completely for those with a level over 0.09 percent,” he said.
The revision of the related law is likely to be passed at the National Assembly by the first half of next year and will take effect immediately after its passage, the ministry official said.
Limit of crackdown
But there is no practical way to crack down on intoxicated pilots other than the current random onsite test, the official said.
“It is impossible to test all pilots before boarding, as it will require huge manpower. We recently had a meeting with airlines, where they said they would prepare breathalyzers on their own and have their pilots undergo the test voluntarily,” he said.
According to the current law, the government’s alcohol test on pilots of flights on international routes can be conducted only by ministry inspectors, not by inspectors of regional aviation administrations.
“We plan to allow the administration inspectors the authority to test pilots for planes departing for overseas destinations, as they can conduct the test more often than ministry officials,” he said.
Pilots of foreign carriers also remain unchecked. “We have the authority to conduct the test on captains of foreign airlines but we rarely do, as foreign authorities barely check Korean carriers’ captains as well at their airports. Such pilots are also subject to the laws of their home country and blood-alcohol level criteria, not ours,” he said.
If there is a report, such as a pilot of a foreign airline smelling of alcohol, ministry inspectors can conduct the test and notify the airline of the result if the blood-alcohol level surpasses the country’s permissible level, he added.
취중 상태로 비행을 하려던 조종사들이 연달아 적발되면서 “음주 비행”에 대한 우려가 커지고 있다. 관계당국은 규정을 강화하고 있지만 조종사들의 음주를 완전히 막기에는 부족하다는 지적이다.
6월 10일 서울에서 제주로 향하는 이스타항공 비행기에 한 기장이 음주 상태로 조종관을 잡으려다 국토해양부 감독반의 불시 음주단속에 걸렸다. 전날 밤 술을 마셨다는 이 기장의 혈중 알코올농도는 단속 기준치인 0.04%를 조금 넘은 0.042%였다.
국토해양부는 이 기장의 면허를 한 달 정지시키고 이스타항공에는 2천만원의 과징금을 부과했다.
지난 5월과 작년 10월에도 각각 아시아나 항공과 대한항공의 기장들이 음주 단속에 걸린 바 있다.
현재 관련법에 따르면 비행 전 음주가 적발된 기장은 자격정지 한달, 그리고 해당 항공사는 최대 2천만원 벌금에 처해지고, 비행 중 음주를 한 기장에게는 최대 2년 혹은 1천만원의 벌금형이 내려진다.
국토부 관계자는 “세 경우 모두 비행 전 음주여서 면허만 정지됐지만, 앞으로는 비행 중 음주와 같은 수준의 처벌을 주려고 관련법을 개정중이다”라고 밝혔다.
국토부는 또 단속 기준 혈중 알코올농도를 0.03%로 강화할 계획이다. 이 관계자는 “예를 들어 0.03-0.06%는 120일 면허정지, 0.09% 이상은 면허 취소 등 음주량에 따라 처벌을 달리 하는 방안을 강구하고 있다”고 말했다.