Pilot's alcohol arrest highlights drunk pilot problem

Pilot's alcohol arrest: An American Eagle pilot had a blood-alcohol level of twice the legal limit. Police arrested the pilot before flight from Minneapolis to New York City in January.

An American Eagle pilot was charged Tuesday with three gross misdemeanors after authorities said he failed a blood-alcohol test as he was preparing to fly a plane from Minneapolis to New York City in January.

Kolbjorn Jarle Kristiansen, 48, was arrested at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Jan. 4 after airport police and a Transportation Security Administration officer said they smelled alcohol as they walked past a group of four pilots around 5:30 a.m. Authorities said a preliminary test revealed Kristiansen's blood-alcohol content was 0.107, more than double the legal limit for pilots.

CBS News reports that on average about a dozen pilots fail blood alcohol tests each year between 2001 and 2011. Some 11,000 tests are done each year.

Kristiansen, of Raleigh, N.C., was charged in Minnesota's Hennepin County District Court with three counts related to attempting to operate an aircraft under the influence of alcohol. Each count carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a fine of $3,000.

Kristiansen's attorney, Peter Wold, said he hadn't seen the charges but they were expected.

"He never operated the aircraft. He never touched the controls," Wold said. "That's just the fact."

According to a criminal complaint, two officers approached Kristiansen and noted he had "glassy and watery eyes and was slow in responses to officer questions." The complaint said Kristiansen admitted that he consumed alcohol the night before and was planning to fly.

After the preliminary test, a subsequent blood test revealed Kristiansen's blood-alcohol level was 0.09. Pilots are prohibited from flying if they have a blood-alcohol level of 0.04 or higher, half the level allowed for motorists.

American Airlines uses American Eagle to operate shorter connecting flights. Back in January, American Eagle spokesman Matt Miller said Kristiansen had been suspended, and an internal investigation was being conducted.

"The pilot involved in this matter continues to be withheld from service," Miller said in an email Tuesday. "American Eagle has a well-established substance abuse policy that is designed to put the safety of our customers and employees first."

Miller declined to comment when asked about the status of the internal investigation.

A message left with the Air Lines Pilots Association, Kristiansen's union, was not returned.

The flight, with 53 passengers, was delayed about 2 ½ hours as the airline found a replacement pilot.

Jeanne Cooney, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota, said that based on the circumstances of the case and the different way federal and state statutes are written, it was appropriate that the case be handled by state court.

While federal law criminalizes the operation of an aircraft while under the influence of alcohol, state statutes make it a crime if a person also makes an "attempt" to operate an aircraft while under the influence.

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Follow Amy Forliti on Twitter: http:www.twitter.com/amyforliti

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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