As with most safety-related jobs, professional pilots get drug tested for employment. Airline and charter pilots are also subject to the same Department of Transportation random drug testing programs that other industries have.
Positive tests are taken very seriously and are grounds for being suspended or fired from the job.
But not all pilots are subject to drug tests.
The FAA only mandates testing for employees working for certified air carriers (Part 121 or 135 operators). For the most part, Private Pilots and others operating under FAR Part 91 are not subject to drug testing–although the regulations specifically prohibit them from operating an aircraft under the influence of any substance.
Here’s a look at the specifics regarding pilot drug testing, including what the standard DOT tests screen for and what the FARs mandate.
Do All Pilots Take Drug Tests?
First, it’s important to draw a distinction between the different types of pilots–and the different types of employers of pilots–that are out there. The easiest way to understand this is to carefully examine how the FAA’s Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) are written.
Part 91 pilots are those who are operating on their own.
Mostly, this applies to Sport and Private pilots and Certified Flight Instructors. However, there are a few times when Commercial pilots might operate under Part 91 as well. Part 91 requires pilots to possess medical certificates and prohibits operating aircraft while under the effects of drugs or alcohol.
More often than not, professional pilots fly for a certified operator, like an airline or charter company. In these instances, the pilots must not only abide by the rules in Part 91 but those rules under which the company operates, namely Parts 119 and 121 or 135. FAR Part 120 spells out specific drug testing rules for these employees.
FAA Drug and Alcohol Rules for Pilots
Nearly every pilot must get and maintain a medical certificate. Sport and Private Pilot students must get an initial medical, even if they choose to use their driver’s license instead of a medical under BasicMed in the future.
Most commercial pilots must renew their first or second-class medical certificate every year or two. But here’s a fact that might surprise you: while the standard medical exam requires a urine test, it does not screen for drugs. Instead, it is tested for kidney disease and diabetes.
Beyond securing their medical certificate, pilots are also bound by the regulations they fly under. Part 61 lays out the rules regarding your certificate, and one, in particular, is of interest.
FAR 61.15 states that any conviction from the violation of a Federal or State law “relating to the growing, processing, manufacture, sale, disposition, possession, transportation, or importation of narcotic drugs, marijuana, or depressant or stimulant drugs or substances is grounds for” either the denial of an application for a certificate or the suspension or revocation of a certificate.
The rule goes on to lay out particulars for reporting such events, including motor vehicle actions (DUIs).
FAR 91 covers the general operating rules under which most pilots will operate, whether flying for pleasure or as a career.
For example, one of the first rules, 91.17, is a prohibition against operating an aircraft while “using any drug that affects the person’s faculties in any way contrary to safety,” as well as a prohibition against acting as a crewmember under the influence of alcohol. The rule also provides for testing and requires a certificate holder to submit to drug or alcohol testing by any law enforcement officer or the FAA.
Airline and Charter Company Drug Testing
The requirements above do not include testing unless there is “a reasonable basis to believe that a person may have violated” Part 91.17. But that’s not the whole story if you are employed by a certificated air carrier, like an airline or charter company.
For these professional pilots, random drug testing is the standard. FAR Part 120 outlines the drug and alcohol testing programs that Part 121 (airline) or Part 135 (charter) operators must use.
The rule applies to “all individuals who perform, either directly or by contact, a safety-sensitive function.” It’s no surprise that flight crewmembers are included in that, but it also includes mechanics, dispatchers, ramp workers, and many other employees.
The operator’s drug testing program includes training for employees, which includes information on which substances are prohibited and tested for. Part 120.103 lays out the extent of drug testing programs. In general, they must be done to the standards set by the Department of Transportation CFR Part 40 Procedures for Transportation Workplace Drug Testing Programs.
Part 120.109 states the types of drug testing that are required. Drug testing is grouped on pre-employment, random, post-accident, and reasonable cause bases.
For random tests, employers must (usually) test 50 percent of the required employees annually. The actual rate, however, fluctuates based on industry data and is set by the FAA. Selecting employees for testing must be done “by a scientifically valid method, such as a random-number table or a computer-based random number generator…” that gives each employee an equal chance of being tested.
In addition, tests must be unannounced, and dates must be reasonably spread throughout the year.
What Kind of Drug Tests Do Pilots Take?
The tests given to flight crews are standard DOT (Department of Transportation) testing schemes. They are urine tests and must be collected by DOT-trained individuals. The details are in CFR Part 40.
According to CFR Part 40.85, the standard urine samples are tested for marijuana metabolites, cocaine metabolites, amphetamines, opioids, and phencyclidine (PCP). These are the most common and problematic drugs known as the “NIDA 5.” Specifically, the regulation includes initial and confirmatory test cutoff concentrations for:
- Marijuana metabolites
- Cocaine metabolites
Keep in mind, however, that some employers may use tests that are more stringent than the minimum standards of the regulations. Pilot Medical Solutions has an excellent, in-depth write-up on the ins and outs of aviation drug and alcohol testing.
The overall thing to know about pilot drug testing is that it’s more up to your employer than anything else.
While the FAA and DOT mandate certain things, there’s nothing to say your employer can’t have stricter rules. For example, while not required, it is possible that a Part 61 or 141 flight school or a Part 91 commercial operator could institute a drug testing policy. With such a high-profile and safety-related job as flying, it’s in every employer’s best interest to mitigate this risk carefully.
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Brian is an experienced digital marketer who joined Thrust Flight in 2022 as the Chief Marketing Officer. He discovered a passion for aviation at 10 when he went for his first flight in a Piper Cherokee and enjoys helping others discover a career path as a professional pilot. He is an experienced marketing consultant helping brands with a variety of marketing initiatives. Brian received a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Brigham Young University.
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