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Why U.S. Skies Aren’t Full of Drunk Pilots

The few suspected of being inebriated may make headlines, but they’re the exception in a world of rigorous screening.
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Photographer: Yuji Kotani/Getty Images

Work on—or anywhere near—a U.S. commercial aircraft, and chances are good you’ll encounter a random drug or alcohol test.

These screenings are the foundation of a risk program aimed at keeping substance abuse from compromising air safety. It doesn’t always work, which makes for a minor furor whenever allegedly inebriated crew members turn up. On Saturday, police in Scotland arrested two United Continental Holdings Inc. pilots on suspicion of being drunk before their 9 a.m. flight to Newark Liberty International Airport. The incident came about a month after two pilots for Canadian airline Air Transat were detained on similar charges at the same Glasgow airport before their flight to Toronto.