Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Aviation Industry

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5 September 2023

Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Aviation Industry

The great news for the aviation industry is that less than 1% of its employees are testing positive in random drug tests and drug use plays a role in just 1.2% of all aviation accidents. Although aviation employees have relatively low incidences of substance abuse, the complex nature of their jobs and the potential for catastrophe have translated into strict regulations regarding drug testing and alcohol testing for these employees.

The FAA and DOT

Testing in this industry is controlled by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and by the Department of Transportation (DOT). Employers covered under FAA Drug and Alcohol testing regulations include air carriers or operators and certain contract air traffic control towers. To check whether this applies to you or your workplace, you can use DOT’s online tool, Am I Covered?

The Drug Abatement Division of the FAA conducts site inspections to ensure compliance and is also responsible for the development of policies, procedures, and regulations for drug and alcohol testing. The FAA also provides its covered employers with a guide to launching a drug testing program.

Tested Panels

FAA employers are required to use the DOT 5 panel test for drugs which tests for marijuana (THC), cocaine, phencyclidine (PCP), amphetamines and a recently expanded list of opioids. Employers are free to use additional testing, up to a 12-panel test, but these additional tests must be administered and evaluated separately from DOT tests.

Types of Testing


FAA covered employees must submit to a pre-employment drug test before being hired or transferred into a safety-sensitive position. These tests are only valid for 180 days after which employees must be retested.

Random Testing

Random drug tests must be conducted on 25% of employees and random alcohol tests on 10% of employees annually. These tests must be unannounced, and employees must be selected in a truly random, scientifically acceptable manner. Tests must also be spread out throughout the year.


Testing must be conducted following an accident involving an FAA covered employee if an aircraft is substantially damaged or a serious injury occurs. An accident is confined to an event that occurs after someone boards for a flight up to the moment when everyone has left the aircraft. If the evidence suggests that the employee was not at fault, the employer can choose not to administer a test. Any tests that are given, however, must be completed within 32 hours of the accident.

Reasonable Suspicion

Testing for reasonable suspicion of drug or alcohol use must be based on acute and observable symptoms including behavior, appearance, motor skills, speech or odor. A minimum of two supervisors must make the determination that an employee submit to a reasonable suspicion test except in very specific circumstances such as an airline carrier with 50 employees or less where one supervisor may make the determination. (Learn more in What Is Reasonable Suspicion Training and Does Your Company Need It?)

Return to Duty

Employees deemed to have failed a drug or alcohol test must submit to a return to duty test and receive a negative result prior to returning to any safety-sensitive position.

Follow-up Testing

A minimum of six follow-up tests are required in the year following any return to duty of an employee who tests positive. These follow-up tests can be extended for up to five years at the discretion of the Substance Abuse Professional (SAP).

Refusal to Test

FAA employers must report any refusal to test to the FAA Federal Air Surgeon. This refusal is considered a failed test and ramifications can include removal from safety-sensitive positions, termination, and revocation of FAA certification. (Learn more in When An Employee Refuses A DOT Drug Test: What Employers Need to Know).

Testing Samples

Urine testing is the sole acceptable drug test for any FAA covered employer and alcohol testing is normally conducted by a breath test using a DOT certified device.


FAA employers are expected to provide and document education on drug use to both employees and supervisors. Additionally, supervisors who make reasonable suspicion determinations must take both initial and recurrent training. Finally, the FAA also insists that their employers post their company drug policy and include in it consequences for failed or refused tests.

Quicker Reinstatement

Pilots who receive a positive drug or alcohol test result or refuse to take a test may have their certificates revoked and are prohibited from applying for recertification for a minimum of one year. This process between failed test and reinstatement, however, can often be quite lengthy.

A new policy, launched in October 2018, will allow first-time violators only to apply for an expedited settlement of the enforcement process and get them back to crew flight member status more quickly.

Record Check

Employers are required to check the previous five years of drug testing records of any employee they hire or transfer into a safety-sensitive position.

Record Keeping

Employers are also required to preserve their drug and alcohol testing results including alcohol test results higher than 0.02, verified positive drug test results, documentation of refusals, annual MIS reports, SAP reports and records of all follow-up tests and schedules for follow-up tests. Employers must also keep all records of pilot drug tests, regardless of the result, as well as any dispute records for a period of five years

Safety-Sensitive Positions

FAA covered employees who refuse a test or who test positive must be removed from safety-sensitive positions. In regulation 14 CFR Part 120, the FAA lists nine safety-sensitive functions as well as the types of employees considered to be safety-sensitive. This designation applies to all employees – part-time or full-time – and to contract workers. It also includes assistants or individuals undergoing training who fulfill any of these functions.

These safety-sensitive functions include:

  • Flight crew member duties
  • Flight attendant duties
  • Aircraft dispatcher duties
  • Flight instruction duties
  • Aircraft maintenance or preventive maintenance duties
  • Ground security coordinator duties
  • Aviation screening duties
  • Air traffic control duties
  • Operations control specialist duties

Designated safety-sensitive positions include:

  • Pilots
  • Dispatchers
  • Air traffic controllers
  • Aviation mechanics
  • Flight instructors
  • Flight attendants

Certified Professionals

The FAA reminds employers that they are responsible for both their Screening Testing Technicians (STT) and Breath Alcohol Technicians (BAT) and suggests that employers conduct regular audits of labs and testing professionals. As with all DOT covered employers, FAA employers must also have a Designated Employer Representative (DER) who represents the employers in all drug test related matters. They must maintain a list of certified SAPs and provide it to any employee who tests positive.