What you need to know: Drug and Alcohol Testing for the Aviation Industry

Frank Bellwood

Frank Bellwood

on Jun 6, 2023

High above the clouds, where dreams take flight and the world below shrinks to miniature, lies an industry where safety reigns supreme: aviation. The skies, vast and unforgiving, demand utmost precision, vigilance, and sobriety from those who navigate them. Within this realm, drug and alcohol testing assumes a critical role.

In this blog post, we outline the essential components of drug and alcohol testing in the aviation industry. Whether you are a Class 1 or Class 2 category, a pilot, a cabin crew member, an air traffic controller, or an aviation enthusiast seeking deeper insights into the industry's safety protocols, we hope this blog provides you with the knowledge you need to navigate this vital aspect of aviation.

Cansford’s offering:

  • Fast, rapid and accurate: same day ‘instant’ results and 3-day turnaround time on back-to-lab samples
  • Nearly 30 years of experience
  • Widest range of drug portfolio testing in the UK
  • In-house training and HR consultancy service
  • Expert witness reports for courts and tribunals

Why is drug and alcohol testing necessary – and why have a policy at all?

To ensure compliance with aviation regulations, such as the Air Navigation Order 2000, which was established under the Civil Aviation Act (1982), it is imperative that individuals involved in aviation-related roles, including crew members, air traffic controllers, and license maintenance engineers, are not impaired by drugs or alcohol. Regardless of whether you are Class 1 or Class 2, violating this regulation is considered an offense.

The Civil Aviation Publication 19 explicitly prohibits the following actions:

  • Reporting to work while under the influence of alcohol, defined as having a blood alcohol level exceeding 0.02%.
  • Consuming alcohol within 8 hours prior to the designated reporting time at the workplace.
  • Reporting to work in any safety-critical area while under the influence of any prescription or non-prescription medication or drug, unless the individual is entirely certain that the medication or treatment will not negatively affect their ability to perform their duties safely.
  • Consequently, airlines have a valid rationale for implementing rigorous drug and alcohol testing policies in order to uphold compliance and ensure the safety and effectiveness of aviation operations.

Cansford’s testing for the aviation industry includes:

Pre-employment Testing

Before being employed, prospective pilots and crew members are required to undergo drug and alcohol testing as part of the recruitment process. This initial screening helps to ensure that individuals joining the industry are free from any substance abuse issues.

Random Testing

Pilots and crew members are subject to random drug and alcohol testing throughout their employment. This means that at any given time, they may be selected for testing without prior notice. Random testing helps to deter substance abuse and maintain a high level of safety in aviation operations.

Post-Incident Testing

Following a significant incident or accident involving a helicopter or aircraft, the pilots and crew members involved may be required to undergo drug and alcohol testing. This is done to determine if substances played a role in the event and to assess the individuals' fitness for future duty.

Cansford has one of the UK’s most comprehensive drug testing portfolios:

Click to view our various testing groups:

Hair Analytes

Analytes for Oral Fluid

Dried Blood spot analysis

Types of Testing available:

Point of care testing - We can undertake point-of-care testing anywhere in the UK. If you want us to test airside, then we would need the right permissions in place. But we're quick and accurate. While urine used to be a commonly used and requested test, there are other tests which can be used that are cleaner, and less invasive or embarrassing for the donor.

Cansford prefers to use an oral fluid ‘instant point-of-care’ cube, which has a very short window of detection of up to 48 hours. It’s confirmation ‘in the moment’ but can also be used in conjunction with other testing methods to establish a longer timeframe of drug or alcohol use by the donor.

PEth blood test - Phosphatidylethanol (PEth) is a very specific alcohol biomarker and provides the highest sensitivity for the detection of current regular alcohol consumption. PEth testing is effective for detecting chronic and heavy drinking. PEth requires only a few drops of blood in the form of ‘dry blood spots’ that are taken for analysis at a laboratory.

Hair strand test - A hair strand test is among the most accurate laboratory tests for drugs and alcohol – and is almost impossible to cheat. The method can be used to detect virtually all drug and alcohol substances, between seven days and six months after their use. Test results also indicate the month in which a donor ingested a substance and can therefore be used to build a ‘picture’ of substance use over time.

Breathalyser - Cansford also provides this service, to test in the moment breath alcohol levels. Breath alcohol testing can also be used in conjunction with other methods of testing. One method might be to use a breathalyser with a hair sample or a PEth blood test to determine the window of detection and use over a period of time. The model Cansford uses is Ministry of Justice approved, meaning any test results are legally admissible in court or at a tribunal hearing.

Nails - Nail testing offers a sensitive, versatile alternative to hair testing, when the latter is not possible. Like hair testing, nail testing can be used to detect drug and alcohol use across long detection windows. This is approximately between six and 12 months – according to whether the sample is a fingernail or toenail. We take a small sliver of nail, which is painless.

Oral fluid (Saliva) - Oral fluid test results can be offered instantly, using point-of-care tests. Alternatively, samples can be sent to our laboratory and tested with greater accuracy. For this reason, point-of-care saliva testing is typically used to support other test methods.

Oral fluid testing has many advantages over urine testing – which is why we choose to not to offer the latter. Oral fluid samples can be collected under supervision and observation which isn’t the case with workplace urine testing, making it almost impossible to tamper with any saliva samples provided.

Sample collections anywhere in the UK – plus expert consultancy and HR support:

We provide an expert sample-collection service through our 50+ trained collectors who are based across the UK. At home, on the airfield, in the hanger or at the office, we can collect samples at a time and place which is convenient for you. We also offer comprehensive training, so that HR or senior staff are confident and competent to perform sample collections in-house at your workplace/space or organisation.

Click here to get your free Aviation guide to drug and alcohol testing

Video Credit:

Frank Bellwood

Frank Bellwood

Frank Bellwood has years of experience providing bespoke, reliable and cost effective solutions to your workplace drug and alcohol testing needs. He has worked and supported all types of industries, ranging from film and TV to construction and offices, and everything in between.

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