Kolbjorn Jarle Kristiansen, 48, was conducting preflight checks about 6:30 a.m. when airport police officers acting on a tip boarded the aircraft, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said. Officers made him take a Breathalyzer test and arrested him on suspicion of being under the influence of alcohol.
"There was a witness who smelled what they thought was alcohol on the pilot's breath and notified police," Hogan said. Passengers had not yet boarded the flight to La Guardia, New York City, he said.
The pilot has been suspended pending an investigation, according to Matt Miller, a spokesman for American Airlines, American Eagle's sister company. The airline is cooperating with authorities and will conduct an internal investigation, Miller said.
The flight, with 53 passengers on board, was delayed about 2 ½ hours while a replacement pilot was arranged, Miller said. It arrived in New York after noon.
After the pilot was taken to Fairview Southdale Hospital to have a blood sample taken for testing, he was returned to the custody of airport police, Hogan said.
The alcohol limit for flying is lower than for driving, Hogan said.
"In Minnesota, the legal limit for pilots is .04, much stricter than someone traveling on a road in the state," he said.
Federal rules prohibit pilots from flying within eight hours of drinking alcohol or if they have a blood-alcohol level of 0.04 or higher, half the level allowed for motorists.
A woman who answered the phone at a North Carolina number listed in Kristiansen's name referred inquiries to the Air Line Pilots Association, his union. She said he has been a member of the union for 23 years, but she declined further comment or to identify herself.
Messages left with union officials were not immediately returned.
Experts say even a few drinks the night before a flight is too much.
"Airline pilots know that the level of responsibility is such that no alcohol at all in the bloodstream is the standard, and if you can't be sure that a drink the night before is going to completely metabolize out, then you shouldn't have it," said aviation expert John Nance.
A Wake County pilot, who runs a national rehabilitation program for alcoholic pilots, said pilots usually keep their job if they go through his program.
"We average about 120 or 130 pilots a year that go into the program," said Dana Archibald. "If they come into the program, and work real hard in the program, their job will be there and they will get their lives back too."
Pilots face drug and alcohol testing when they seek a job, are involved in an accident or return from alcohol rehabilitation. Some are selected for random tests. More than 10,000 pilots are tested each year and about a dozen flunk the alcohol part - a number that has remained mostly steady for more than a decade, according to federal statistics.
Twelve pilots failed the breath test in 2011, 10 in 2010, and 11 in 2009, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
"Your odds of having an impaired driver on the highway are much higher, but there's a smaller margin for error in aviation," said James Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Drinking among pilots got more attention after notorious cases in the 1990s, including one in which a jury convicted all three pilots of a Northwest Airlines flight of flying under the influence. Federal rules were tightened.
Hall said most airlines and other transportation companies now have effective programs to identify and get treatment for employees with drug or alcohol problems. But, he said, an incident like Friday's should lead to a re-examination of protocols, including the 0.04 standard to testing procedures.