April 15, 2007

Pilot failed breath test after going on diet

A Virgin Atlantic pilot ordered off a transatlantic flight after failing a breathalyser test has been cleared to fly again after it emerged that his low-carbohydrate diet triggered a false reading.

Subsequent blood tests on Antony Bonnick, 47, showed a blood-alcohol reading of just over a fifth of the limit set for airline pilots - which in turn is a quarter of the drink-drive level.

The pilot's ordeal started when he arrived at Heathrow to take control of a Virgin Atlantic airbus on a scheduled flight to New York on March 31. As Mr Bonnick went through the security checks for flight crew one of the guards thought he could smell alcohol on his breath.

Mr Bonnick was allowed to board the plane but about 45 minutes before take-off police got on the aircraft and breathalysed the pilot in the cockpit using a machine calibrated to aviation levels. The pilot failed this test and was escorted off the plane.

By this point the economy class passengers had boarded the flight. Fortunately for the pilot, Virgin's upper class passengers, who would have seen the police arrive and leave along with the pilot, had not.

A standby crew were called to ensure the flight took off and Mr Bonnick was taken to Heath-row police station, where blood tests took place.

He was suspended from duty and bailed to return to the police station.

Mr Bonnick was given one sample. He sent it to a laboratory that found a minimal blood alcohol reading. He was exonerated when the result was confirmed by the police test on two more samples.

Even non-drinkers are capable of producing trace elements of alcohol in their bloodstream, which would explain the level in the pilot's blood.

The breathalyser reading was put down to his low--carbohydrate diet, which can affect the smell of a person's breath and their metabolism.

Mr Bonnick, a father of three, has declined to talk about the incident and is said to be keen to return to his flying career.

According to the Civil Aviation Authority 30 pilots a year have their flying licences suspended as a result of alcohol.

Virgin Atlantic is currently the only UK airline to operate random breath testing, although others are considering doing so.

Such a move is opposed by Balpa, the pilots' union, which has called for a "peer pressure" system, in which colleagues would intervene if they feared somebody had been drinking.

"We are convinced that the promotion of a punitive approach, which criminalises problem drinking, can only lead to a culture of covert consumption," says the union.

Mervyn Granshaw, Balpa's general secretary, insisted that the move would enhance safety because fellow pilots and cabin crew would not want to put their own lives at risk. "It is my career," he said. "If I think somebody is unfit to fly, I am going to stop them doing so."

Pilots are forbidden from drinking at all during the eight hours prior to a flight and are told to exercise extreme moderation in the 24 hours before take-off.

By: David Millward
Via: www.telegraph.co.uk

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