A Bad Case of FWI

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You might not have trusted Thomas Cloyd to drive you to the mall, let alone fly you cross-country in a commercial airliner. In 1986 Cloyd was arrested in Texas for drunken driving. In 1998 he admitted to police that he had been drinking when he pushed his wife around, spat on her and verbally abused her, and in 2000 he was arrested for belligerently harassing his neighbors while soused. So it's a wonder that Cloyd, 44, an America West Airlines pilot, was ever allowed to climb into the captain's seat of an Airbus A319.

Fortunately, that's as far as Cloyd and his co-pilot, Christopher Hughes, 41, got on July 1 before police stopped their America West flight on the Miami International Airport tarmac. Both were charged with a felony of being drunk while almost flying to Phoenix with 124 passengers aboard.

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Ten percent of the nation's 114,000 airline pilots are randomly tested each year for alcohol. Most years see fewer than 10 violations and no cases like Cloyd's and Hughes'. But the warning signs in Cloyd's case were just the kind to evade industry scrutiny. Cloyd joined America West 12 years ago, but the airline knew nothing about his '86 DUI arrest (he was convicted on a lesser charge of reckless driving) because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not require pilots to report alcohol- or drug-related convictions until 1990, and the rule was not retroactive. America West discovered his record only after police took him off the plane. The 1998 charges were eventually dropped, but he was convicted of disorderly conduct in 2000 and got two years' probation — again unbeknown to America West.

But even if the Arizona-based airline had known, says spokeswoman Janice Monahan, disorderly conduct, even if it involved alcohol, "probably would not have been a disqualifying situation." The FAA concurs, but an agency spokeswoman says it is "always re-evaluating [its] policies." She notes that pilots who self-report alcohol problems are given counseling and can return to work if they quit drinking. About 1,000 airline pilots who have finished that program are flying again today.

Cloyd was not one of them. The Breathalyzer tests he and Hughes took in Miami suggest a bender that would make a frat house blush. America West bars pilots from drinking 12 hours before a flight; FAA rules say eight hours. Florida's legal blood-alcohol limit is .08. After he allegedly drank much of the night of June 30 in Miami's Coconut Grove section, say police, Cloyd's blood-alcohol level was still .091 the next morning, even as he was about to pilot the 10:38 a.m. flight. Hughes' was .084. Miami airport guards say the two got verbally abusive when they were not allowed to take their cups of Starbucks coffee past a security checkpoint. The guards tipped off airline agents and Miami-Dade County police, who stopped the Airbus as it was being pushed away from the gate.

Released on bail, both are to be arraigned later this month and face five years in prison. (Neither could be reached for comment.) Until they were taken off the plane, Hughes, who joined America West in 1999, and Cloyd had clean piloting records. They have since been fired, and the FAA has taken away their licenses. But the airline and the agency still need to consider, at least in Cloyd's case, why they came so close to a potentially dangerous instance of Flying While Intoxicated.