(Summer 2017) The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) is the largest union of its kind in the United States, representing over 55,000 pilots and spanning 32 airlines. At this time, the ALPA is opposing a proposed drug testing initiative that safety groups regard as a huge step forward in America’s war on opioid painkiller misuse. In fact, the pilots’ union has fought against the establishment and expansion of alcohol and drug screenings for many years—as far back as the 1980s—and still actively does so.
ALPA brings up the accuracy and cost of drug tests and raises questions about privacy issues, particularly involving unreasonable search and seizure. Instead, the union suggests rerouting funds into treatment for pilots with addiction issues. The International Federation of Air Line Pilots, of which ALPA members make up a large share, further posits that random testing does not prevent pilots from inappropriate drug and alcohol usage.
Currently, the Department of Transportation (DOT) tests for opiates, amphetamines, marijuana, cocaine and phencyclidine (PCP). ALPA is now opposing the DOT’s proposed move to test for an additional four opioid substances: oxycodone, oxymorphone, hydrocodone and hydromorphone. Screening for these medications, which are among the most often-abused prescription painkillers, would go into effect later in 2017.
The union’s stance on this issue runs counter to that of both the airlines and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is charged by the federal government with developing safety guidelines. The cut-offs, according to ALPA, could put pilots with a valid prescription in jeopardy of being found non-compliant even though they are using medication as directed. Instead, the organization argues that screenings should be engineered to identify individuals who are substance abusers. The DOT, however, does give protection to safety-sensitive workers who hold a bonafide physician’s prescription for an opiate painkiller.
Unfortunately, even if new DOT screenings include the four opioid prescription medications in its revised panel, the test still would not identify the use of fentanyl, a strong, man-made drug many times more potent than heroin. Due to the length of time involved to pass federal legislation, when the testing expansion was proposed, fentanyl was not the dangerous issue it is now. Fentanyl and its related synthetic opioid cousins, barring methadone, were responsible for a staggering 72% rise in overdose fatalities from 2014 to 2015.
One other component to consider in this matter is the actual number of pilots being screened each year. Current random testing for safety-sensitive workers is 10% for alcohol and 25% for drugs. At this level, many pilots could theoretically avoid screenings for a significant length of time.
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