An American Eagle captain preparing his jet for takeoff Friday morning from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport was removed from the aircraft and arrested on suspicion of being under the influence of alcohol, an airport spokesman said.
Airport police boarded the Bombardier CRJ-700 aircraft at 5:57 a.m. as the 48-year-old pilot was seated in the cockpit making his pre-flight checks for the 6:10 a.m. flight to New York's LaGuardia Airport, said Twin Cities airport spokesman Patrick Hogan.
The pilot of the 65-seat airliner came under suspicion when officers and a TSA agent at a checkpoint "detected the odor of a consumed alcohol beverage as they passed by [the pilot] waiting to enter the elevator," airport police said.
The pilot for the regional airline, which is owned by American Airlines, failed a preliminary alcohol breath test, was taken into custody and brought to Fairview Southdale Hospital for a blood-alcohol test, Hogan added. Passengers had yet to board, he added.
Hogan said he hadn't received any specific measurement for the pilot's blood alcohol level but said the breath test put him well above the legal limit, which in Minnesota is 0.04 percent. That matches what federal regulations call for and is half the legal limit in Minnesota for driving a motor vehicle.
The pilot, who has not been charged, was booked and then released on his own recognizance at about 10:30 a.m. to airline personnel.
"Blood alcohol test results likely won't be available for a few weeks, and the case remains an active investigation," Hogan said.
There were 53 passengers booked for the flight, said airlines spokesman Matt Miller. Flight 4590 left at 8:50 a.m. once a replacement for the captain was arranged, Miller added.
Miller said in a statement that "American Eagle has a well-established substance abuse policy that is designed to put the safety of our customers and employees first. We are cooperating with authorities and conducting a full internal investigation. The pilot will be withheld from service pending the outcome of the investigation."
The pilot is from Raleigh, N.C., and has two decades of airline experience.
He was most recently issued a new airline pilot certificate in November 2010 and had a medical exam last month, the FAA reports. He originally got his airline pilot certificate in 1991. Other records show he became ground and licensed flight instructor for single-engine aircraft in 1987.
'Bottle to throttle'
One of the most notorious cases of drinking and flying occurred in 1990, when a Northwest Airlines captain, flight engineer and first officer were arrested when their flight from Fargo landed at the Twin Cities airport. A patron of a Fargo-area bar had tipped authorities that the crew had been drinking heavily there the night before. Federal regulations were tightened after that.
Along with the 0.04 percent limit, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also prohibits any pilot from flying within eight hours of drinking alcohol, what the agency calls "bottle to throttle."
In an FAA brochure aimed at pilots titled "Alcohol and Flying: A Deadly Combination," the agency touches several times on the perils of drinking the previous day or evening and then waking up and climbing in the cockpit, even if it has been more than eight hours since that last drink.
"A hangover effect ... may be just as dangerous as the intoxication itself," the document reads. "Consider the effects of a hangover. Eight hours from 'bottle to throttle' does not mean you are in the best physical condition to fly or that your blood-alcohol concentration is below the legal limits."
10-13 incidents per year
Incidents of commercial pilots being found with a "confirmed breath alcohol concentration" of 0.04 percent or higher have held steady in recent years, according to FAA figures, ranging from 10 to 13 since 2008. Since 1995, the highest figure was 22 in 2002. More than 10,000 pilots are tested each year.
Staff writer Pat Doyle contributed this story. Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482