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When President Ronald Reagan signed an Executive Order requiring federal agencies to create an employee drug testing program, the Department of Transportation (DOT) responded by developing a comprehensive program and cascading it down to all DOT administrations, including the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to cover pilots and air traffic controllers. Today, drug screening is done for most occupations related to the transport and aviation industry from mechanics to baggage handlers.

Extensive studies indicate that drug use is actually uncommon among pilots, but because of the high level of performance needed for flight, drug use in aviation is closely monitored.

On top of the FAA regulations, most airlines implement their own drug abuse policies. Under these policies, employees with substance abuse violations are removed from safety-sensitive operations and given the choice to go on a treatment program after which they are allowed back to full duty. A second violation will result in disciplinary action or termination.

Background Screening & Drug Testing in Aviation and Airline Companies

Under Section 120 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, employers shall conduct drug testing in accordance with the DOT’s “Procedures for Transportation Workplace Drug Testing Programs” as follows:

Pre-employment Drug Testing

No employer may hire any person for a safety-sensitive function or transfer any person from a non-safety sensitive function to a safety-sensitive function without having first conducted a pre-employment drug test and have received a negative result for the same. This rule applies to transfers if more than 180 days have elapsed from the time of the original hiring/pre-employment drug test.

The substances to be tested for are:

  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Opiates
  • Phencyclidine (PCP)
  • Amphetamines
  • A metabolite of the above-mentioned substances

A DOT 10 Panel Drug Test can be conducted in a laboratory setting ensuring all qualifications are met under The Department of Transportation. Corporate laboratory drug testing is best used while screening candidates for employment. After employment, however, instant drug test kits can be useful tools.

Random drug testing

This test shall be done on 50% of covered employees selected at random and without warning.

Post-accident/post-incident drug testing

This test is to be done on an employee whose performance contributed to an accident, no later than 32 hours after the accident

Reasonable-cause drug testing

If it is reasonably suspected that an employee in a security and safety-sensitive function used a prohibited substance as demonstrated by physical, behavioral and performance indicators.

Return to duty drug testing

This test is given to an employee after previously testing positive or refusing to submit to testing (and was therefore removed from work) before being allowed back to work.

Follow-up drug testing

This test is for employees who have previously passed a return-to-duty test. Most DOT programs require 6 follow-up tests the first year from returning to duty, to continue for up to 5 years.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Drug and Alcohol Testing Rules

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has a drug and alcohol testing program to make sure that the company provides a safe and healthy environment for both employees and those they serve. The administration follows The Department of Transportation’s (DOT) drug and alcohol testing policy. Both agencies work together to define and implement the coverage of the substance abuse program.

Here are some of the most common questions and answers about DOT’s drug and alcohol testing rules for FAA:

Who are covered by the DOT – FAA drug and alcohol testing rules?

According to DOT, all employees who perform safety-sensitive functions are subject to employee drug testing. These are:

  • Air traffic control
  • Aircraft dispatchers
  • Aircraft maintenance and preventive maintenance
  • Aviation screening
  • Flight attendants
  • Flight crewmembers
  • Flight instruction
  • Ground security

When are covered employees tested?

As per DOT, covered employees are tested during pre-employment and during random testing. Employees are also subject to testing during circumstances like post-accident, reasonable suspicion, return-to-duty, and follow-up testing.

What are drug and alcohol prohibitions as per DOT testing rules?

DOT drug testing rules require FAA employers to test their employees for the following drugs: Marijuana, Opiates, PCP, Cocaine, and Amphetamines.

For DOT Alcohol Testing, the prohibited alcohol concentration for FAA employees is 0.04% or greater. Instant tests can monitor the Breath Alcohol Concentration of drivers, immediately. Employees who are caught violating these prohibitions must be immediately removed from performing safety-sensitive functions until management decides on their applicable consequences.

Who performs the drug and alcohol testing procedures?

For drug testing, a DOT urinalysis procedure must be followed. Only certified collectors are allowed to perform the collection of urine samples from employees. They are trained to perform the testing procedure that meets DOT’s drug testing requirements, making sure that all samples reach the laboratory without signs of tampering.

For DOT alcohol screening, only a screening test technician (STT) and breath alcohol technician (BAT) are allowed to perform the alcohol test. DOT Alcohol Testing requires 2 tests: a screening and confirmation test. STTs are only allowed to perform screening tests, while BATs are allowed to perform both tests. They are trained to guarantee accurate test results.

FAA Random Drug Testing Requirements for Pilots

Like most drivers who drive vehicles that require special education and certification, pilots too are subject to the regulations of the DOT Alcohol Testing and Drug Testing Policy. These regulations are designed to maintain the safety of all passengers and aircraft crew who depend on their pilot to be able to transport them from one location to another without incident.

This means that the pilot must be able to be on guard at all times for the varying situations that could occur during the course of taking off, flying and landing the airplane under their control. A pilot more than any other major transportation operator needs to have a clear mind and an ability to focus to maintain the safety and well-being of those he transports. These abilities are delayed, limited or severely impaired by the abuse of illegal substances.

  • Pilots are subject to random, unannounced drug testing which is generally conducted during working hours. Those who are chosen are given a notice shortly before testing which tells them where they must go to submit their sample.

  • They must submit a sample for testing once they’re done doing the safety-sensitive job they are doing and arrive at the testing site. If the pilot doesn’t arrive at the appointed time or is thought to be tampering with the drug testing process they are considered to have refused to test.

  • If the pilot has done anything that constitutes a refusal or outright refuses to submit a sample they will not be able to fly or do any other job which is considered safety sensitive until they’ve completed a drug test with a negative result.

  • Getting a positive result on a random drug test also requires the pilot to achieve a negative test result on retest before they can return to safety-sensitive work. Pilots who failed a drug test will also be asked to submit to at least 6 random follow up drug screenings (which are observed) over the course of the next 12 months to verify their sobriety is being maintained.

  • Pilots who received a negative result are referred to a Substance Abuse Professional who will determine the rate and frequency of follow-up drug testing (which may continue for up to 5 years after the failed test) as well as what substances the pilot will be tested for.

The FAA random drug testing program (like other DOT-regulated substance abuse programs) also offers those with substance abuse problems opportunities to report their addiction to a counselor so that they may pursue treatment without facing censure from their employer.

Education about substance abuse and prevention is also an integral part of the drug testing process as they help employees to better understand the role that drugs take on in their lives. If these pilots feel that they work in an environment that is willing to help them succeed and remove the negative effects of substance abuse from their work and public lives they’ll be much more invested in maintaining the requirements.

Drug Testing Methods

Hair drug test

This is the best method for detecting long-term substance use. A 1.5-inch sample of hair cut close to the scalp will provide a 90-day substance use history. Available hair tests include laboratory collection hair test or the self-collection hair test which can have rapid results in 2 days.

Urine drug test

This is the most technologically developed method. Instant test kits come in a variety of forms including:

Advantages of Urine Test:

  • Affordable
  • Easy and convenient to use
  • Readily available
  • Can detect drug use from 1 - 7 days after usage for most drugs; up to 15 days for Phenobarbital and up to 30 days for long-term heavy use of marijuana.

Saliva drug test

This is the least invasive of all drug testing methods and ideal for on-the-spot/on-site testing. It is steadily gaining in popularity because of its affordability, accuracy and convenience. It is also impossible to cheat. Alcoscreen Alcohol Saliva Test DOT Approved (24 Tests) are the most affordable DOT Approved Alcohol tests on the market.

Interesting Statistics on Aviation Drug Testing

  • Only 0.06% of pilots and air traffic controllers have a confirmed positive drug test, according to the FAA.
  • The top 3 substances that have been found in connection with aircraft mishaps are cannabinoids, ethanol, and opiates.


Riding an airplane is still considered by many to be the safest mode of transportation, but it will probably help to have pilots who are ready for work. By implementing airline drug testing programs and policies, the aviation industry will become much safer than it already is.