The Korean Times reported that a Korean Air pilot was intercepted twice attempting to drink alcohol during a flight. On December 30, 2018, on a flight from South Korea to Amsterdam, the captain attempted to drink a glass of champagne and later requested wine from the cabin crew, who turned him down. His behavior was reported to the crew members by the cabin chief and an altercation reportedly broke out between the co-pilot and captain during the flight. Korean Air officials gave the captain a verbal warning and demoted the cabin chief because he caused a conflict. In media reports, they stand by their decision, explaining that the captain’s actions may have been questionable but caused no real problems on the flight.

Korean Air’s treatment of this situation poses questions for how large corporations deal with high profile situations where people in authority are caught drinking at work. In the case of an airline pilot, it is arguable that their highest attention is required for successful job performance. 

Airlines are known for having stringent staff policies related to dress code and conduct. For example, the 2014 draft of the Delta Airlines Employee Handbook explicitly states that disciplinary action or termination is the result of either coming into work while intoxicated or consuming alcohol on company premises. Prohibitions extend to drug use and firearms. It is standard practice across most industries to completely prohibit the use of any mood or mind-altering substances while at work.

There are, however, many arenas in which companies make exceptions or relax their standards specifically regarding alcohol. The cultural nuances that apply to these situations should also be considered. 

Miscommunication or Cultural Norm?

Alcohol and culture are intertwined in the context of celebrations, mournings and general socializing. The degree to which alcohol is culturally accepted varies even across Korean generations and culture. According to a study published in the National Institutes of Health, Korea’s drinking culture is largely social. Participants in this study who were in their 20s had a 79.9% rate of binge drinking while in social situations. According to the World Health Organization, in 2016, 58.5% of people aged 15 or older in the Republic of Korea reported binge drinking within the past month. 

In the event of Korean Air’s pilot requesting alcohol, there were multiple points of communication to consider:

  • The pilot initially reached for champagne and was told no by a cabin crew member
  • During the flight, the pilot requested wine from another cabin crew member and was refused
  • This second crew member reported the incident to the cabin chief
  • The cabin chief apparently relayed this information to the rest of the crew and the co-pilot
  • The co-pilot either confronted the pilot or brought up the incident, leading to conflict

On a flight, the captain is the highest level of authority. At two points during this interaction, the captain was denied alcohol after direct request by cabin crew members, who rank the lowest on a flight. In Korean culture, the role of authority and embarrassment play a large role in interpersonal relationships. Saving face, or not being exposed or embarrassed, are an important part of respect. This may have been a contributing factor in the seemingly lenient treatment Korean Air took on the captain and the demotion of the cabin chief.

A Verbal Warning and A Demotion

The Korean Air pilot was not fired for drinking on the job, receiving only a verbal warning. The cabin chief who reported his behavior was demoted. Drinking during work is generally not encouraged. From direct prohibition in employee guidelines to the cultural stigma of secret consumption, it would be rare to find a workplace that openly encourages drinking. This is because alcohol is a depressive substance that alters a person’s mood and mind, making it virtually impossible to perform tasks with the same care and attention one has when sober.

Not the First Time Pilots Scrutinized Over Alcohol Consumption

The incident at Korean Air is not the first time airline employees have been caught drinking on the job. In November of 2018, a Japan Airline pilot was convicted and sentenced to jail after a breathalyzer test measured his blood-alcohol level over nine times the legal limit an hour before he was scheduled to fly a plane to London. This incident prompted Japan Airline to institute an alcohol policy, which they formerly did not have. In 2016, an American Airlines stewardess was arrested for beginning her flight duties with a blood-alcohol level eight times over the legal limit. 

An airline editorial site that reviews industry-specific issues explained that people who work for airlines may have a higher rate of functional alcoholism. From availability to the strain of unusual hours and physical demands, self-medicating through alcohol and drinking on the job may be prevalent.

Is it Socially Acceptable to Drink Alcohol At Work?

Drinking at work leads to inebriation is almost universally prohibited. No drinking on the job is a typical company policy. A policy for drinking alcohol at work may be included in an employee handbook and is usually part of an employee’s written and signed conduct agreement.

These standards typically include stipulations that alcohol cannot be consumed during work hours on company property. Employees do often drink together after work at happy hours or during company parties. Because a significant portion of adult life is spent at work, a place of employment is also the place people build friendships. As life is shared, celebrations often include alcohol.

It is generally understood that there is a difference between social or casual drinking and addictive, alcoholic behavior. Repeatedly asking for alcohol or pushing to consume alcohol in a work environment may suggest that treatment is needed.