A dozen airport drivers, firefighters and even plane maintenance staff reported to work drunk in India in the first two months of the year, a regulatory crackdown found, reigniting concerns about flight safety in an aviation market that’s previously had issues with inebriated pilots.
Under a program initiated by India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation, ground employees with IndiGo -- the nation’s biggest airline -- SpiceJet Ltd., and even Indian Oil Corp. were found to have failed breath-analyzer tests in January and February, according to a person familiar with the matter. A first breach leads to a suspension, and repeat offenders may see their permits to work in airports confiscated, the person said, asking not to be identified because the information isn’t public.
India in December revised guidelines to expand the universe of airport workers who would be subjected to breath-analyzer checks. Maintenance staff and anyone who visits the cockpit for inspection, audit or training were included. The list has since been expanded further to include drivers of baggage carts, loaders, push-back operators and air traffic controllers, the person said.
Expanding the testing pool will bring Indian airport safety and operation standards closer to global benchmarks. Even when blood alcohol levels are near zero, the effects of any alcohol consumption can last as long as 36 hours, according to guidelines released last year.
A spokesman for India’s civil aviation ministry, which oversees the DGCA, didn’t have an immediate comment.
IndiGo said in a statement that January 2022 “witnessed the peak of Covid cases during the third wave.”
“Being on certain medication can also lead to employees failing the breath-analyzer test,” according to the statement. “However, cases of ground staff failing this test are far and few between. We follow all laid down protocols to ensure the safety of our passengers and employees.”
Representatives for SpiceJet and Indian Oil didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
In 2018, a senior pilot with former state carrier Air India Ltd. -- who was also a member of the airline’s board of directors and was in charge of its overall flight operations -- tested positive on a breath test just an hour before he was scheduled to fly to London from New Delhi. Two years earlier, the DGCA ordered Jet Airways India Ltd. and Air India to file police complaints against pilots who were found drunk, deploying legal action for the first time ever in such cases.
Other countries and airlines have faced issues with drunk pilots. Japan Airlines Co. was forced to put off a bond sale in 2018 and its president took a 20% pay cut for a few months after a pilot showed up drunk just before he was to operate a London-to-Tokyo flight. A year later, South Korea’s transport ministry suspended the license of a pilot at budget carrier Jin Air Co. for 90 days for failing an alcohol test before a flight and imposed a 210 million won ($172,200) penalty on the carrier.