Northwest Crew Convicted Of Flying Under Influence

THE felony convictions of three cockpit crew-members for operating a Northwest Airlines jetliner while under the influence of alcohol is likely to prompt Congress and the airlines to toughen regulations preventing pilots from drinking before flights, a federal prosecutor says. ``There has been so much attention to this case over the past months that I'm sure the pilots and the rule-makers and the congresspersons will look at this type of issues now,'' Assistant US Attorney Elizabeth de la Vega said Monday, following the verdicts.

The defendants - flight captain Norman Prouse of Conyers, Ga., co-pilot Robert Kirchner of Highland Ranch, Colo., and flight engineer Joseph Balzer of Antioch, Tenn. - stood stone-faced as the verdict was read.

Sentencing was expected in about 30 days. The pilots, who were released without bail, could be given up to 15 years in prison and fined $250,000 each on the felony convictions.

The three men were arrested in Minneapolis after a patron at a bar in Moorhead, Minn., notified the Federal Aviation Administration that the crew had been drinking the night before the March 8 flight. The flight, carrying 91 passengers from Fargo, N.D., to Minneapolis, landed without incident. The pilots were charged after tests indicated they still had alcohol in their bloodstreams about two hours after the flight, ranging from 0.12 percent to 0.06 percent. In most states, a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 is considered legally drunk for motorists. Northwest fired the three men, and the FAA revoked their licenses.

Since the incident, airlines and the FAA have approved more-stringent rules concerning drinking. The FAA now uses a 0.04 percent blood-alcohol standard and has given its safety inspectors more authority to halt flights if they suspect pilots are impaired.

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