The Japanese pilot who was arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) on October 28, 2018, for being close to 10 times over the alcohol limit is just a cherry on top of reported cases where Japanese airline pilots had failed to board scheduled flights due to excessive drinking. But it took this latest scandal to make Japanese authorities scramble to review and tighten airline pilot alcohol consumption rules.

What was to be a regular Japan Airlines (JAL) flight from London to Tokyo on a Boeing 777 on October 28, 2018, turned into an embarrassing scandal for the airline and the Japanese authorities, casting a shadow over the reputation of the country’s pilots.

A Japan Airlines co-pilot, Katsutoshi Jitsukawa, was scheduled to board Flight JL44 headed to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (HND) when he was arrested for failing a breath test – just 50 minutes before the flight’s departure time from London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) at 7 p.m. (local time), BBC writes.

The driver of a crew bus smelt alcohol on the co-pilot and reported it to the airport’s security personnel who contacted local police. The British police arrested Jitsukawa at the airport after a breath test indicated he had excessive alcohol in his system, JAL confirmed in a press release.

According to euronews, Jitsukawa had already passed a pre-flight breath test at the company’s office in Heathrow.

On November 1, 2018, the first officer pleaded guilty to being almost 10 times over the legal blood alcohol limit for a pilot. Results from a blood test showed he had 189 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood in his system (the legal limit for pilots in the UK is 20 mg), BBC reports.

The 42-year old had been drinking for six hours on the night before the London-Tokyo flight and had consumed two bottles of wine and five cans of beer at a hotel, The Japan Times revealed.

Jitsukawa will be detained until his sentence in the UK on November 29, 2018.

As for Flight JL44, the plane was delayed for over an hour as a result of the incident. The Japanese airline was forced to operate the Boeing 777 with two pilots instead of the usual three on the London-Tokyo trip.

JAL, the flag carrier of Japan, has apologized to passengers of the affected flight, stating that the company takes the co-pilot’s violation “seriously” and that it will “implement immediate actions” to prevent any such incident from happening in the future.

In fact, Jitsukawa did not violate JAL’s internal rules on consuming alcohol within 12 hours of a flight, but the amount of alcohol he had in his system did exceed guidelines set by the airline, The Japan Times pointed out in another article.

As a result of the incident, the airline’s rule prohibiting pilots from consuming alcohol 12 hours before a flight has now been upgraded to 24 hours. Alcohol checks have also been extended to involve airport staff, along with the flight crew, euronews reports.

Penny for your thoughts?

The Japan Airlines incident actually came days after the country’s other main carrier had to deal with its own pilot drinking drama.

All Nippon Airways (ANA) apologized on November 1, 2018, for flight delays experienced at its ANA Wings unit the previous week: five domestic flights departing and arriving in Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan, were delayed for up to 58 minutes.

That was the time needed to find a replacement for a pilot, who became unwell after a night of drinking, Japan Today writes.

According to the Japanese news media, the pilot had been drinking on the night of October 24, 2018, at a restaurant in the city of Ishigaki, Okinawa prefecture. He called in sick the next morning, being unable to make his first early morning flight.

With his actions, the pilot violated the ANA Group’s ban on drinking alcohol within 12 hours of a flight, The Japan Times reports.

In light of these scandals, Japanese authorities have pledged to review and tighten the rules on alcohol consumption by aviation staff, urging domestic airlines to ensure that flight crews comply with their companies’ drinking policies.

The Transport Ministry issued a document on November 1, 2018, directing all Japanese airlines – including JAL and ANA – to report by mid-month the measures being taken to control drinking by flight staff.

According to the Ministry, Japanese airlines reported 15 cases of flight delays resulting from alcohol consumption by pilots in fiscal 2017, and six in fiscal 2018… so far.

Currently, Japan does not have a regulation that sets a legal limit for alcohol consumption for flight crews. Home-based airlines have their own rules and voluntarily carry out breath tests.