UPDATED: The first officer of an airBaltic flight bound for Crete from Oslo on Saturday had a high blood alcohol level of 1.2, and pleaded guilty on Monday along with three fellow crew members to being drunk on duty. The airline fired all four on Monday and they face continued police custody, also because of fears they’ll leave the country.
The captain, first officer and two flight attendants of the airBaltic flight were caught in an early-morning alcohol control at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen. They were held in arrest over the entire weekend pending a custody hearing on Monday, at which both flight attendants were ordered held for at least another week.
Prosecutors were seeking extended immediate custody terms of two weeks for all four and prevailed in the case of the captain and first officer. Prosecutor Kari Karlsen Aas of the local Romerike Police District said all four crew members had pleaded guilty or partially guilty to charges of being under the influence. Aas said they admitted they’d been drinking hard liquor, not beer, on the evening before they were supposed to fly more than 100 charter tourists to Crete. The captain’s blood alcohol level was 0.4 and the two flight attendants’ 0.4 and 0.8. All the preliminary results from a breathalyzer may register higher when final results of blood tests are returned.
“You have great responsibility as the captain of an airline flight, “said another prosecutor, Camilla Ek Sørensen. “When four of five crew members are more or less under the influence of alcohol, we take that very seriously.” The captain appealed his custody term on the spot.
Personnel at the hotel where the flight crew was spending the night on Friday had tipped police at Gardermoen that the pilots and flight attendants had been drinking on the eve of the early-morning flight, reported Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). All needed to report for duty to operate Gardermoen’s first flight of day on Saturday, which was set to depart at 5:45am for Chania on the Greek isle of Crete.
Instead the crew was met by what the Norwegians call a promillekontroll, breathalyzer checks for alcohol consumption. One of the three flight attendants passed the test, but the other two plus the cockpit crew registered blood alcohol levels of more than 0.2. The flight, chartered by TUI Star Tours with 109 passengers on board, was thus held at the gate.
“AirBaltic apologizes in the strongest of terms that our flight BT8743 from Oslo to Crete was delayed by four hours and 45 minutes,” the low-fare Riga, Latvia-based airline announced later that afternoon. “The reason for the delay was that four members of the flight’s crew are suspected of having been under the influence of alcohol when the flight was due to take off.”
The airline stated that the four crew members were suspended pending results of blood tests taken shortly after the airport control. “We stress that we have zero tolerance for failure to follow our safety routines, and as soon as all investigations are carried out, we will go through our routines in cooperation with the relevant authorities,” the airline stated.
The head of Norway’s pilots’ association said it was only the third time in 30 years that a pilot had failed a test for alcohol at a Norwegian airport. Petter Førde, leader of the association, told NRK that no alcohol is allowed within eight hours of reporting for duty “but most of the airlines in Norway have much stricter regulations than that.”
Newspaper Aftenposten reported Monday that airport police plan to increase the frequency of alcohol tests for flight crews. Such tests are only conducted sporadically at present.
Poor start to a holiday
For the passengers, who had checked in for the dawn flight as early as 3:45am, it was a poor start for their holiday. One passenger, Erling Langeland, told NRK that those waiting at the gate were initially told the delay was caused by “illness” among the crew. “But then a police vehicle drove up to the flight,” Langeland said. “After a while, the crew was loaded into the police car and driven off. We didn’t learn about the alcohol problem before we read about it in the media.” The crew was taken to the local police station in Lillestrøm.
Star Tours, one of the major charter and package tour operators in Norway, was also unhappy about the airBaltic incident. A spokesman wouldn’t speculate on what consequences it may have for future use of the airline, which operates daily flights between Oslo and Riga along with chartering out aicraft and crews to tour operators. Aftenposten reported the airline had 24 departures from Oslo scheduled this week.