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Pilots have a slew of strict rules and regulations that they have to follow under federal law and employer rules, so do they get drug tested more often?

Under the Federal Aviation Regulations and Department of Transportation, pilots are required to get drug tested. This includes before they’re hired, after any incidents, before they can return to duty, if there is reasonable cause, at random times, and to follow-up a return to duty.

Pilots are responsible for potentially hundreds of people’s lives at any time and millions of dollars worth of cargo and equipment. So it makes sense that they’re required to pass drug tests and stay in the right state of mind. In this article, you’ll learn about how often pilots get drug tested, whether or not they can refuse a drug test, and if pilots get fired for failing a drug test or not.

All of the information in this article has been vetted for accuracy so that you can read with confidence knowing that what you’re reading is true. Through my own experience in the aviation industry and discussions with other experts and pilots (and of course the guidelines laid out in the FAR), I am confident in sharing this information with my readers.

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How Often Do Pilots Get Drug Tested?

If you’ve ever applied for a new job, regardless of what it was, chances are decent that you’ve taken a drug test. And if you’ve had a few different jobs throughout your life, you’ve likely experienced a number of drug tests of your own. So it’s safe to assume that a pilot would be drug tested as well early during the application process. But unlike most jobs, pilots have the chance to be drug tested a lot more often than other professions.

As you may know, the aviation industry is typically bound by the Federal Aviation Administration  (FAA) and its guidelines. Most prominently, this includes the FAA Regulations, which of course includes guidance on how often drug testing is to be administered to pilots.

When Do Pilots Get Drug Tested?

The FAA Regulations state that the employers (i.e. airlines) must follow the Procedures for Transportation Workplace Drug and Alcohol Testing Programs from the US Department of Transportation (DOT).  Here are the most common times that pilots will get drug tested according to the FAA and DOT, just to give you an idea of how often you can expect to be drug tested if you’re thinking about becoming a pilot yourself:

  • During Hiring — As alluded to above, pilots must undergo drug testing during the hiring process before they can be offered the job. The prospective pilot must receive a negative drug test before they’re allowed to work in a safety-sensitive position (defined by the DOT) such as being a pilot. This same test is also applicable to transfers if 180 days have passed since the original hire date.
  • Random Drug Test — As the name implies, random drug testing is done at random times and for randomly selected employees. Random drug testing cannot be prepared for since everything about it is random, and pilots must pass the test to avoid risking being removed from their duties. While the rules of the FAA and DOT must be followed at a minimum, airlines can perform additional random drug testing at their discretion, pursuant to their bylaws.
  • Reasonable Cause Drug Test —An airline can administer a drug test to their pilots if they have any reason to believe that the pilot in question has taken part in any sort of substance abuse. This reasoning can be based on various aspects of the pilot’s performance and demeanor, both physical and mental.
  • Post Accident or Post Incident Drug Test — If a pilot has any sort of accident or incident, whether it’s described as such based on the FAA Regulations (minimum) or the airline’s rules, they are subjected to a drug test. This is done to see if drugs potentially played any part in the accident or incident in question.
  • Return to Duty Drug Test — If a pilot was previously removed from work due to a positive drug test result or for an accident/incident, they will be subjected to a return to duty drug test. Just as the name implies, this test is to ensure that they can pass a drug test before they’re given the green light to start flying again.
  • Follow-Up Drug Test — Just as the name suggests, follow-up drug tests are administered as a follow-up to return to duty drug tests. The Department of Transportation requires that pilots who have returned to duty take six follow-up drug tests during their first 12 months back on the job. Specific airlines can of course require even more tests at their discretion.

What Drugs Are Tested For During A Pilot’s Drug Test?

Under the same guidance from the DOT as above, the FAA requires that pilot drug testing checks for a number of different substances. During any of the above tests, the pilot will be checked for the following substances, at a minimum:

  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Opiates/opioids
  • Phencyclidine (PCP)
  • Amphetamines
  • Methamphetamines

Can A Pilot Refuse To Take A Drug Test?

The obvious answer to this question might seem like no, of course they can’t just refuse to take a drug test, right? Actually, pilots can refuse to take a drug test at any time without facing any sort of legal or criminal action. But that isn’t to say that pilots get off scot-free if they refuse to take a drug test, or else it would be an entirely pointless program altogether!

So what happens if a pilot refuses to take a drug test

If a pilot refuses to take a drug test, the punishments are outlined in the FAR and include the denial of a licensure application and the possibility of losing any active certifications or licensure.

In a bit more detail, any existing application for a certification or license will be denied for up to one year after the date of refusal. Similarly, the FAA has grounds to suspend any certification or license for up to the same amount of time. Of course, further punishment can also be administered from airline to airline based on their own rules.

Do Pilots Get Fired If They Fail A Drug Test?

While it certainly is never a good thing for a pilot to fail a drug test, it doesn’t always mean that they get fired immediately. The decision to officially terminate a pilot’s job will ultimately come down to their employer (i.e. the airline that they work for). However, the pilot will be removed from duty immediately following a positive drug test result and the violation will be submitted to the FAA within two days for further review.

Once the violation is reported to the FAA, the medical review officer will contact the pilot to discern if there is a medical reason for the use of the drug. Following the result of that, the FAA will investigate further and send a Letter of Investigation or they will immediately revoke the pilot of some (or all) of their certifications with an Emergency Order of Revocation.

Based on the pilot’s employer, they might be able to meet with a Substance Abuse Professional (SAP) to start working towards reinstatement. The SAP will provide training and/or required education for the pilot that they must complete before they are eligible to return to duty. At that point, the pilot will undergo further drug testing as outlined in the section above.