Photo/IllutrationJapan Airlines Co. President Yuji Akasaka receives a business improvement advisory on Jan. 11 after a cabin attendant was caught drinking champagne on duty. (Hideki Kitami)

There seems to be no let-up in incidents involving pilots who imbibe too much alcohol before flights.

A Japan Airlines Co. co-pilot was arrested by London police last fall after attempting to board his aircraft in a state of extreme intoxication.

It was followed by a succession of revelations that pilots had been found with body alcohol levels in excess of limits during voluntary pre-flight tests by airlines.

Some misdeeds were beyond the pale.

In one case, a pilot had a colleague back up his story when he lied about how much and when he had consumed alcohol. In another, a pilot got a colleague to take the test for him instead.

A pilot needs reflex reactions to an emergency situation. Any residual alcohol could impair a pilot's ability to control the aircraft, thereby jeopardizing the lives and physical safety of passengers.

Clearly, such a situation must never be allowed to happen.

The transport ministry plans to legally require pilots to be tested for alcohol by using precise breathalyzers.

As of now, government rules only prohibit pilots from drinking alcohol within eight hours of boarding. Major airlines have in-house rules that call for 12 hours from bottle to throttle.

But the time it takes for alcohol to dissipate in the body varies, depending on the amount consumed and the constitutional characteristics of the individual.

Bus and taxi drivers are already required to take alcohol tests. The ministry has rightly decided to extend that obligation to cover pilots.

Specifically, a general limit, which is as stringent as in Britain, will be introduced. It will call for the alcohol content to be less than 0.09 milligram per liter of breath.

An additional rule will be set to prohibit pilots working for domestic airlines from navigating passenger and cargo flights if even a trace of alcohol has been detected.

Some workers on the front lines are bewildered at the plan.

Some fear pilots could still come to grief because of breathalyzer errors or alcohol content in food or mouthwash. Others argue that the rule could prompt pilots to turn to sleeping pills instead of a nightcap, with unintended effects on their ability to perform.

There is a grain of truth in these arguments. The best course would lie in having the new rules in place for a while to judge if they will work as intended.

Besides cracking down harder on errant pilots, there is a need to take a closer look at background factors behind excessive drinking habits.

Pilots, after all, have irregular work patterns, which makes it difficult for them to care properly for their health.

There is also a serious shortage of pilots globally, which means pilots often work demanding shifts, according to Hiroyuki Kobayashi, an aviation critic who previously served as an aircraft captain.

In Japan's case, there are more late-night and early-morning flights, partly because Tokyo’s Haneda Airport now operates around the clock. According to Kobayashi, pilots in active service say there are fewer opportunities for extended downtime at overseas destinations on long hauls, making it more difficult to adjust to jet lag.

There is no hope of solving this problem unless comprehensive steps are taken to accommodate these and other changes in the aviation industry.

The management of pilots’ health and the development of human resources are responsibilities shared by airlines and the government.

They should not content themselves with simply regulating drinking. They need to listen to a broad range of views and hold in-depth discussions on numerous issues, including the irregular work patterns that pilots must put up with and the setup of support to be provided to them by medical practitioners.

Doing so will help enhance aviation safety.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 12