Breathalyser tests are administered to ensure the safety of airline, the passengers as well as the crew. They examine whether the pilots operating are too drunk to fly. If a positive reading is found, they will not be allowed to fly. The procedure was revived in Sri Lanka as a response to the incident in Frankfurt where a pilot failed a breathalyser test recently. His level of alcohol consumption was found to be higher than the permitted norm.
As a result, there was a 15-hour delay and the pilot was suspended. Subsequently the management decided to revive random breathalyser tests in Sri Lanka. The procedure had been approved in 2014 by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Sources from Sri Lankan Airlines state that breathalyser tests were temporarily suspended in 2015.
Pilots allege that the revived procedure did not conform to international norms and standards. A pilot, Captain Sujith Jayasekara questioned the procedure when he was asked to take a breathalyser test. It is alleged that he had ‘refused’ to take the test though the Pilots’ Guild maintain firmly that he had never refused but had simply ‘questioned’ the procedure.
At the time, breathalyser tests were carried out by security officers, which according to the Pilots’ Guild, was a breach of international standards and norms. Nevertheless, the CAA, Sri Lankan Airlines and the Pilots’ Guild have resolved the issue and now medical officers conduct the tests instead. However, Captain Jayasekara has not been reinstated and the Pilots’ Guild believe that it is unfair since he is not guilty. Airline Management sources said that the inquiry probing into the matter would end by the end of this month.
“This should not be taken as work to rule” -Captain Renuka Senanyake - Airline Pilots’ Guild
“Following the incident in Frankfurt, breathalyser tests were introduced in Colombo and other stations. These breathalyser tests did not conform to international standards. Subsequently we had to make a complaint but in the meantime one of our pilots, Captain Sujith Jayasekara, who was to be tested asked a few questions from the security personnel who was conducting the test. He has asked a few questions such as why they were doing the checks and who had asked them to do them, did he get a smell of alcohol, did they think he was drunk etc. He has said that he was willing to go through the test but that he may be unable to steer the flight. At this point, the personnel who was supposed to do the test became excited because they were not trained. This was the first time they had to face an event of this nature. The personnel said that the pilot did not have to undergo the test and could fly,” said Captain Renuka Senanayake, President of the Pilots’ Guild.
“When he entered the cockpit, the personnel informed his superiors that the pilot did not go through the test. The superiors have said that according to rules the pilot should undergo the tests or should mention the reasons for not doing so,” he added.
Subsequently Captain Jayasekara was called back to the country and he was suspended. “At no time did he refuse. If he refused to undergo the test, then legally you can’t allow him steer the flight. The security personnel have mishandled the situation here. The company officials were not properly trained. It’s very unfortunate that the company is targeting this (captain) person. This is why we are no longer cooperating. This should not be taken as work to rule,” he said.
Claiming further that the pilots were not on a work-to-rule campaign he said, “If we adopt ‘work-to-rule’, our aircraft cannot be airborne because the rules are so stringent that if we carry out every detail to a route, you can’t be airborne while on work-to-rule.
When asked if the Guild informed the company about their decision to work only to the stipulated number of hours, he said that it was not needed. “We are acting in accordance with the legal requirements. We are not engaged in any strike. This is not a trade union action. We are only saying that we will not do additional work. We have had enough of issues with the company and this is the last point we have come to and had to react. They have pushed us to this situation,” he said.
He also stated that there was a shortage of pilots at Sri Lankan airlines.
“The airline suffers from short of pilots. You don’t need to be excited if someone says that they will only do the portion of work specified. Pilots cost a lot of money. You have to hire foreigners and they are exorbitantly expensive. The cost is very much more than that of ours. We have worked on our off days to maintain schedules and done our best. Now, we will not fly on our off days and not more than the stipulated number of hours,” he said.
He said that the Pilots’ Guild was in support of breathalyser testing but that they had issues with the procedure. But now as trained medical personnel are conducting the tests they are satisfied. Yet they demand that Captain Jayasekara be reinstated. “We don’t want this pilot prosecuted because he never refused. Captain Sujith Jayasekara has been in the Air force for more than 20 years before joining Sri Lankan Airlines where he has worked for around 24 years so far. He’s a very senior pilot in the line up,” he added.
When we tried to contact Captain Sujith Jayasekara, the Guild informed us that he could not give a statement as there were legal obstructions
“Breathalyser testing is a common procedure” -Captain Suren Ratwatte- CEO - Sri Lankan Airlines
Speaking to the Dailymirror on what triggered the issue regarding breathalyser testing, Captain Suren Ratwatte, CEO of Sri Lankan Airlines said, “There is a couple of ongoing domestic investigations, so I can’t reveal any identities as it is not fair on the individuals concerned. There was an issue with a pilot who was allegedly under the influence of alcohol on a flight coming in from Europe. After this incident we were forced to cancel the flight as he couldn’t obviously fly. There was a big delay and this caused great inconvenience to our passengers.
“There had been a temporary suspension of the random testing programme which is mandated and regulated by the CAA. Breathalyser testing is a common procedure followed all over the world. Subsequent to the incident in Frankfurt, we were asked to resume random testing and we issued notices to all crew members informing them that we were doing random tests,” he added.
Accordingly random breathalyser testing has been carried out for about 35 pilots since its resumption. “A couple of weeks ago, after we resumed random testing, one individual allegedly refused to undergo the test. As per the procedure he was removed from the roster and we are investigating that case too. The pilot and the security officer who was responsible for carrying out the test have been suspended pending inquiry. Both have been issued with show-cause letters. They have been given 10 working days to respond. As soon as they do, we will analyse them and then an independent arbitrator will review the case and make a recommendation.” He added that statements have been obtained from both parties concerned and there had been an internal inquiry.
Referring to the procedure involved in conducting breathalyser tests he said, “We select a day and issue a bunch of flight numbers with a choice. For example, flight number 302 or 480 at different times, and we breathalyse the crew on that. The testing team goes to operations in the airport where they check in, explains to them what’s happening, and gives them a small piece of paper identifying the date, time and consent form. Then they are tested and the results are recorded. If there is an issue, we get an immediate notification. So far there have not been any issues except for this one alleged refusal.”
“We have to do a certain number of breathalyser tests a month. This is a requirement by the CAA and we comply with that. We do a little extra to make sure that we are legal,” he added.
He said that the procedure for breathalyser testing is decided by the CAA and not by the airline. “There was a meeting hosted by the Director General of Civil Aviation and the CAA agreed to have the procedure slightly changed. So medical personnel will conduct the clinical test and security officers will remain in the background if required. The airline has no objection to this.”
When asked if he accepted that there was a shortcoming in the earlier methodology where security officers conducted the tests instead of medical personnel, he said, “I believe that it is the contention of the individual concerned. But since he has not responded to us in writing I can’t confirm that.”
He said that it was the function of the regulatory authorities of the respective airlines to carry out random testing on their pilots. “If a foreign airline asks us to test an individual or crew because they have a suspicion, we will of course do that as a matter of courtesy. But it is not within our authority to random test other crew,” he said.
When asked about foreign pilots employed by Sri Lankan Airlines, he stated that there were around 35 foreign pilots working with Sri Lankan. ”That’s about 10% of our pilot strength and some of them have been with us for almost 15 years and they are very loyal employees. As far as the company is concerned, we don’t differentiate,” he said. Speaking further, he said that as the testing was done randomly, the foreign pilots working for Sri Lankan airlines would also be tested. “We don’t target anybody. A choice of flight numbers is given to the testing personnel who go out there and carry out the tests.”
Referring to the actions by the Pilots’ Guild to work only to their rosters and not work overtime, Captain Ratwatte said, “The Pilots Guild has taken the position that the individual should be reinstated until the inquiry is completed. But that is against our HR procedure. We have to apply the same procedure on everyone regardless of their position in the establishment. We have respectfully said that unfortunately we are not in a position to do that. So far there have not been any disruptions and I hope the pilots will realize that this is being done for everyone’s safety.”
“If a pilot is found indulged in alcohol within eight hours prior to departure, then he will be found guilty” -Susantha de Silva - CAA
Susantha de Silva, Head of Division (Flight Safety Regulation) of the Civil Aviation Authority said that breathalyser tests had been introduced two years ago at the airport for pilots. “It is the prerogative of the airline to determine the frequency and how it should be done. We don’t specify that. Depending on the circumstances they will do it randomly, voluntarily or essentially every day.”
When asked if only pilots were subjected to the test he said that not only license holders but also authorization holders were subjected to the test. “This includes engineers, dispatchers, load masters etc,” he noted.
“If a pilot is found indulged in alcohol within eight hours prior to departure, then he will be found guilty. If my memory serves me right, once a positive reading is recorded, the person will have to stay for 20 minutes without taking up duty and will have to retake the test. If the result is yet again positive, he will be subjected to a blood alcohol test by a doctor. If he is found guilty even afterwards, then he will have to face the consequences. There will be an inquiry,” he said.