Author Mark Fairlie

Nearly 400 air passengers were arrested for alcohol-fuelled incidents at airports or on board planes in 2016, a 50% jump year-on-year.

An investigation by the BBC’s Panorama program arrived at the figure after 18 out of the 20 country’s leading airports responded to a survey.

For a number of years, health professionals have advocated either banning the sale of alcohol at airports completely or refusing passengers access to a flight if they are too heavily under the influence of alcohol.

How has this situation come about?

Across the UK, pubs and other outlets selling alcohol have to abide by strict regulations on how, when, and to whom they can make sales.

The situation is different once you’ve gone past security checks at airports. These pubs and shops are not governed by UK licensing law. How they operate and when they open is determined by the policies of the airport they’re situated in. Airports normally allow bars to stay open to serve passengers on the earliest and latest flights.

By the time passengers are called to board their plane, many of them may be heavily intoxicated after they’ve been kept waiting for a few hours for their flight.

alcohol consumption

A change in the rules

A recent Virgin Atlantic service to Jamaica was diverted when a drunken passenger threatened the cabin crew and got into fights with flight attendants and passengers.

The plane performed an emergency landing in Bermuda. The incident occurred after the flight crew had refused to serve the man any more alcohol.

It was incidents like this which led to the aviation industry to adopt a new code of conduct on how to deal with drunken and disruptive passengers.

Part of the new code covered the sale and consumption of alcohol and included guidelines on:

• training staff on the responsible sale of alcohol,
• how to limit or stop the supply of alcohol to individual passengers,
• not selling to anyone they suspect of already being intoxicated,
• not encouraging excessive alcohol consumption,
• how retailers should advise passengers not to open and consume alcohol before or during their flight,
• having designated premises supervisors in bars and shops where alcohol is sold, and
• promoting responsible and considerate behaviour among passengers

However, debate continues to rage over whether this code has been effective or not.

According to a survey by the Unite union, more than three-quarters of the members had witnessed “alcohol fuelled air rage” since these rules took effect. Less than a quarter believed that the rules had helped to reduce the drunken behaviour.

Speaking to the BBC Panorama program, Ally Murphy, a former Virgin Airlines flight attendant, said that “people just see us as barmaids in the sky” before going on to describing inappropriate and unrequested touching of a sexual nature by some passengers.

Calling time on binge drinking?

Moves towards stricter regulation seem to be inevitable with calls from some airlines to get tough which appear to have the backing of the government.

The Home Affairs Committee has recently announced that they wish to see stricter guidelines regulating alcohol sales at airports, a move backed by the House of Lords.

Ryanair, one of Europe’s largest airlines, has made requests to airports that it serves to limit pre-flight sales. Speaking to City AM, Kenny Jacobs, the airline’s chief marketing officer said,

“It’s completely unfair that airports can profit from the unlimited sale of alcohol to passengers and leave the airlines to deal with the safety consequences…This is an issue which the airports must now address and we are calling for significant changes to prohibit the sale of alcohol at airports, particularly with early morning flights and when flights are delayed.”

However, speaking to the Guardian, Karen Dee, the CEO of the UK Airport Operators Association said,

“The sale of alcohol per se is not a problem. It’s the misuse of it and drinking to excess and then behaving badly.”