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Sunwing captain removed from plane shows the system works, according to recently retired pilot

January 3, 2017 1:20 AM
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Sunwing captain removed from plane shows the system works, according to recently retired pilot

That's not to deny the burning questions about how an allegedly plastered pilot made it to the cockpit without being challenged — but the point is, that's as far as the captain of Sunwing Airlines flight WG595 out of Calgary International Airport got.

And that's because the system works, says Capt. George Hawey, a recently-retired commercial pilot who spent 50 thrilling years at the yoke, plus countless tedious hours in security lines and pre-flight briefings at airports around the world.

Hawey, who capped his career with a two-decade stint at Calgary-based WestJet, says passengers can calm down over the drunk-pilot story that has the travel world in a tizzy.

"I would tell them to have faith in the system, because it does work," said Hawey, who still lives in the Calgary area.

"It worked all the times that I've seen it, and that's because of the crew members — their lives are at stake too."

Sunwing is taking a public-relations kicking over the soused-pilot story to be sure, but before condemning the budget holiday airline, remember it was Sunwing staff who called the cops.

On Saturday morning, Calgary police arrested the pilot of the Cancun-bound 737, after crews at the gate and on the Sunwing jet noted the pilot was behaving strangely as he boarded the aircraft.

They informed the co-pilot of their concerns, and all doubts about the captain's fitness to fly were removed when he was found slumped unconscious in his seat.

Calgary police were called to the gate and Miroslav Gronych, a 37-year-old foreign national from Slovakia in Canada on a work visa, was arrested and charged with having care and control of an aircraft while impaired, and having care and control of an aircraft with a blood alcohol level over .08.

Police say Gronych was more than three times the legal limit for operating a vehicle, though under Transport Canada rules, he shouldn't have had any alcohol in his system, period.

"I'd like to think you can rely on the rest of the crew in a case like this, because safety is the No. 1 concern, and there's no way they want to fly with someone like that either," said Hawey.

How the pilot made it to his seat is a puzzler, given the high levels of security at Canadian airports, where passengers, staff and flight crew must undergo screening under the watch of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority.

While flight crews have special privileges and their own security line, they do come in contact with CATSA agents prior to entering restricted, crew-only areas.

CATSA spokesman Mathieu Larocque says security staff have no specific mandate to watch for signs of drug or alcohol impairment, but agents do report potentially flight-disrupting behaviour when noted, including intoxication of crew and passengers.

Larocque says a thorough review of CCTV footage showing the Sunwing pilot passing through security on Saturday morning, some two hours before police arrived, raises no red flags, and the pilot in question appears to be behaving normally.

"Otherwise, they would have notified the airline," said Larocque. "But there was nothing unusual."

But a source in the commercial airline industry says it is common for flight crews to pass through security with almost no interaction with the agents, and unless a person is pulled aside for random further screening, it would be possible to slip through in silence to the crew area and then onto the plane.

That's something Hawey confirms: "You don't have to talk to them, and if there's nothing suspicious, you can walk right through screening with a minimum of eye contact."

The veteran pilot says it would be almost impossible to avoid contact with the fight and gate crew, however.

Whether in the pre-flight briefing, where the crew is in close quarters, or at the gate, Hawey says it wouldn't be possible to hide that level of intoxication — and he can't imagine any co-worker turning a blind eye to someone so drunk.


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