Washington — Stirred by reports of pilots and other aviation employees with drug problems, federal officials are scrambling to expand the number of aviation workers being tested for drugs. Starting next month, for instance, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will screen applicants for drug use and include drug tests as part of annual physical exams for its safety-related employees, such as air traffic controllers and inspectors.
Employees of airlines, however, are not on the government payroll and are under a different set of regulations.
In order to cover these workers, the Department of Transportation last week unveiled a set of proposals that would permit scheduled and random testing of airline workers, pre-employment screening, and prohibition of off-duty drug use.
The measures also would require airlines to set up rehabilitation programs for workers and permit employers to test personnel when they have a ``reasonable suspicion'' of drug or alcohol abuse.
Aviation officials caution that the presentation of the proposals is only the first step in the complex federal rule-making process.
The department, through the FAA, must now gather comments on the proposals. Only after this is done (45 days are being offered for public comment) will aviation experts chisel out a rule.
The most controversial element in the proposals is the provision for random testing. Airline-employee groups and unions strongly object to such a measure, claiming it violates the employee's constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure and could easily be abused by employers.
But even union leaders admit tighter drug screening may be necessary.
In September, an off-duty USAir pilot was treated at a Pittsburgh hospital for a severe cocaine overdose. Since then, a series of dramatic press reports has suggested that a number of airline personnel is being treated for drug problems.
As if that weren't enough, the Department of Transportation's inspector general is preparing a report that shows as many as 16,000 pilots (up to 1,000 of them commercial) may be continuing to fly even though their automobile driver's licenses have been revoked or suspended for driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
``There's a growing recognition that drugs are a bigger problem than we once thought,'' says Stephen Hayes, a spokesman for the FAA. The problem now, he says, is developing the appropriate response.
Industry leaders, eager to keep the problem in perspective, point out that no scheduled United States airliner ever has been involved in a fatal accident in which drugs or alcohol was cited as the cause.
The regulations being developed for airlines would buttress existing FAA rules and help to harmonize a patchwork of airline company policies.
Under current FAA rules, airline crew members are not allowed to fly within eight hours after drinking alcohol, while under the influence of alcohol, or while using a drug that adversely affects their ability to do their job safely.
Meanwhile, some airlines fire employees on the spot when they're caught using drugs, while others offer elaborate rehabilitation programs.
The FAA has already moved to deal with the drug problem among its own safety-related employees, such as air traffic controllers and inspectors.
The agency conducts tests, for instance, when it has reason to suspect its employees are using drugs. One such case led to the highly publicized sweep of the air traffic control center in Palmdale, Calif., earlier this year, when 34 controllers were yanked off the job. Subsequent tests cleared 21 of the people, but the other 13 entered voluntary drug treatment programs.
FAA employees are not subject to random tests. Some analysts say this shows the agency's uneasiness about such a provision, lessening the likelihood it will be a part of a final rule for the private sector.
Donald Engen, administrator of the FAA, says he is philosophically opposed to random testing. But he is hesitant to entirely rule out the possibility.
Meanwhile, some safety experts question the value of a drug abuse detection program that does not include random checks. They point out that drug users who know the date of their test may ``dry out'' in time to pass muster.
``We have to protect privacy and constitutional rights,'' says John Galipault, president of the Aviation Safety Institute in Worthington, Ohio. ``But when it involves the safety and welfare of hundreds of people who are depending on the competence of a group of professionals, then I think those professionals need to be accommodating.''