By Hannah Sampson
Washington – Police removed a JetBlue pilot preparing to fly from Buffalo, New York, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, from the cockpit on Wednesday morning after authorities said he failed a breathalyser test.
The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority said the pilot, identified as 52-year-old James Clifton, of Orlando, registered a blood alcohol level of 0.17 on the test. That is more than twice the legal limit for driving in every US state but Utah – and more than four times the permitted amount for pilots.
Federal Aviation Administration regulations prohibit pilots from flying or trying to fly an aircraft within eight hours of drinking or if their alcohol concentration is at least 0.04.
“The FAA is investigating allegations that an airline pilot attempted to report for duty while under the influence of alcohol,” the agency said. “The agency takes these matters seriously.”
JetBlue spokesperson Derek Dombrowski said the airline had “a very strict zero-tolerance internal alcohol policy” and had removed the crew member from his duties. He did not reveal what the airline’s policy is; some carriers prohibit pilots from consuming alcohol 12 hours before a flight.
The transport authority in Buffalo said airport police took Clifton into custody after he took the breathalyser test. It then contacted federal authorities and released him to JetBlue security.
“He may face federal charges,” the transport authority said.
Clifton’s behaviour at a transport security administration checkpoint, where he didn’t make eye contact or move out of the way when someone else passed by, raised the suspicions of a federal officer, according to a police report. The officer notified police, who went to the gate where the plane was about to take off just after 6am.
Police asked Clifton to step on to the jet bridge, where he failed an initial test asking him to follow movement with his eyes. According to the police report, he told officers he had been drinking the night before. After initially saying he had five to six drinks, he later said he had seven to eight.
The pilot had a gun and ammunition in the cockpit, which police confiscated. The police report said the pilot was a participant in the Federal Flight Deck Officer programme, which was created after 9/11 to train and arm crew members to defend the flight deck from takeover.
The report said the pilot “exhibited numerous indications of impairment both in his speech and gait”. He was questioned further at police headquarters before an officer gave him a ride back to the airport so he could book a flight home, the report said.
The flight Clifton was supposed to pilot took off four hours and 10 minutes late, according to FlightAware, which tracks flights and airport traffic.
While incidents involving inebriated pilots command headlines, experts say they are relatively rare. The FAA told The Washington Post in 2019 that nearly 117 000 US pilots were tested for alcohol from 2010 to 2018; of those, 99 were found above the legal limit.
Doug Murphy, a defence lawyer, told The Post at the time that an arrest for flying while intoxicated would result in the suspension of a pilot’s flying privileges while a case was investigated.
“In most of those cases, they’re done,” he said.