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Pilots' arrest forces us to face the unthinkable

Several months ago, while walking toward the boarding gate with members of my airline crew, our captain was approached by a passenger who asked if he had been drinking alcohol. The query was met with incredulity by our crew. Our captain was sober; in 16 years I've never flown with one who was not. In a clipped voice, the captain informed the passenger that he had not been drinking and then marched toward the airplane, shaking his head.

But after the recent arrest on alcohol-related charges of two America West pilots, every flight-crew captain may find himself shaking his head.

Earlier this month, Capt. Thomas Cloyd and First Officer Christopher Hughes were arrested, stripped of their pilots' licenses and terminated by America West. After a security screener at Miami International Airport claimed to have smelled alcohol on their breaths as the two pilots passed the checkpoint, their plane was recalled to the gate. The two men were tested and, according to published reports, both Cloyd and Hughes had blood-alcohol levels higher than 0.08, the level at which impairment is presumed under Florida law.

They were charged with operating an aircraft under the influence and operating a motor vehicle under the influence. If convicted, the pilots could face five years in prison.

And if convicted, they won't receive a bit of sympathy from the passengers and crewmembers whose lives were endangered.

Airline crews are subject to random drug and alcohol tests after every trip sequence, but not at the beginning. In the wake of the America West incident, passengers may begin to question the logic in this order.

Mandated by the Department of Transportation for every U.S. airline, compulsory testing has been debated for many years. Some employees call it an invasion of privacy.

In my years of flying, I have never been subjected to a sobriety test. But I have been tested for drugs on numerous occasions. (This discrepancy speaks volumes about the failure to address the most common form of substance abuse.)

My most recent drug test happened to occur at Miami International. After our inbound aircraft docked at the arrival gate, passengers began filing through the forward exit door. I grabbed my crew bag and followed behind them, happy to be home after a routine three-day trip. A supervisor was standing at the front of the jet bridge, however. She held in her hand a urinalysis order with my name on it.

I followed the supervisor down the jet bridge, up an escalator, into a concourse, along a moving walkway, through the airline-crew immigration checkpoint, down an escalator, past a gantlet of Customs officials, through a set of automatic doors, up another escalator, into another concourse, through an unmarked door, down one of those dark and dreary airport corridors that passengers never see, and then we stepped into my airline's medical facility.

There, I was met by an unsmiling health-care professional. She proffered a plastic cup and in a crisp voice told me that a proper level of urine was necessary to achieve adequate test results: If I failed to fill the cup to a mark approximately two-thirds of the way up, the sample would be negated and I would be banished to a chair, watched and told to drink, drink, drink until the appropriate volume of urine could be furnished.

I've heard stories about employees forced to wait for hours because their internal plumbing failed to produce. Fortunately for me, I was ready to cooperate.

The restroom I was shown to was not a functional one _ there was no running water at the sink, and the toilet bowl held a blue liquid. Later, I learned that these measures prevent less scrupulous employees from diluting their urine with water to help mask illegal drugs.

In one of those paranoid moments that we are prepared for by too many X-Files episodes, I felt as if I were being watched. I unzipped my pants anyway.

Once the cup was filled, I left the bathroom and presented my urine sample to the health-care person. What happened next seemed a bit excessive: She double-sealed the container, placed it inside one-half of a plastic foam mold, covered that half with the other half, wrapped both halves together with a mummylike application of tape marked "caution," put the taped mold in a box and put the box in a file cabinet filled with other samples, to be picked up by a Federal Express courier.

The following day, couriers would deliver hundreds of similar plastic foam containers _ a collection of samples from airline-crew bases across the country _ to a testing center. My stuff tested negative, as do the samples of the overwhelming majority of crew members tested.

All it took was two allegedly drunk pilots to damage the integrity of an entire industry.

Elliott Hester flies for a major U.S. airline. He is author of "Plane Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage and Queasiness at 30,000 Feet," published by St. Martin's Press.