Airlines are calling on the government to introduce strict licensing laws in a bid to end the boozing culture at British airports, in which pubs and bars open as early as 4am.
The demand comes after a fivefold increase in air-rage incidents in three years. In 2016, 422 air-rage incidents were reported to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) — up from 85 in 2013 — many of which were associated with alcohol.
Currently, licensing laws do not apply to airports, and many bars start serving when the first check-in opens, which, with the rise of early-morning flights, can be in the small hours. Jet2, which has stopped the sale of alcohol on its flights before 8am and banned 75 passengers for life as a result of drunkenness, is among the airlines calling for tighter regulation.
“It’s not normal behaviour to be drinking lager at 6am, and the effects can be much worse,” says Jet2’s MD, Phil Ward. “The airports don’t see it because the full impact of the alcohol doesn’t take effect until passengers are halfway through the journey, and it’s my crew and other passengers who have to suffer.”
According to easyJet, more than half of air-rage incidents are due to alcohol.
“Alcohol is a major causal factor of disruption, and so we strongly believe that two regulatory changes need to be made,” said the airline. “First, licensing laws need to be introduced at airports to control the sale of alcohol, and second, the consumption of duty-free alcohol on board should be made illegal.”
Disruptive drunks have become such a concern for easyJet that it has given crews the power to declare flights dry based on a snap analysis of passengers as they board.
In recent weeks courts have dealt with cases including that of Samuel Moore, who said his recollection of threatening to put a gun to the head of an easyJet employee was “hazy” after drinking whisky at Belfast airport, and Lance Wheelwright, who went “purple with rage” after being refused alcohol on a Flybe flight.
A senior cabin crew member based at Luton said the problem was “much worse” than the CAA figures suggest. The stewardess, who asked not to be named, said: “Every day in the summer we’re dealing with passengers who are drunk, rude and intimidating. They hide duty-free vodka in soft-drink bottles. They swear at passengers who tell them to calm down, and they upset ordinary families going on holiday. They may not be disruptive enough to be reported, but just by thinking they have the right to treat an aircraft like a nightclub they ruin flights for other passengers.”
Airports are not subject to the licensing laws that govern alcohol sales elsewhere in the UK. That loophole allows outlets to serve drinks around the clock with none of the legal responsibilities imposed by the Licensing Act of 2003, and means outlets not normally associated with alcohol consumption, such as Burger King and Pret a Manger, can also sell booze.
After a spate of air-rage incidents last summer, the aviation minister, Lord Ahmad, promised to look into airport pub opening hours. However, the Department for Transport now says “there are no plans to specifically address the issue”, adding that a voluntary code of practice encourages airports and airlines to refuse alcohol to passengers who appear to be drunk, and make it clear that alcohol purchased at the airport cannot be consumed in flight.
The airlines, however, say the airports aren’t doing their bit. They point to Manchester airport, where beer is sold in two-pint measures and where the Grain Loft bar has self-service beer taps; to Gatwick, where the London Bar serves porn star martinis from 4am; and to World Duty Free, which, they claim, sometimes fails to inform customers that spirits purchased cannot be consumed on the plane.
“It’s clear that alcohol needs to be sold and consumed responsibly, for the safety of all,” says Tim Alderslade, chief executive of the trade body Airlines UK. “But this is not always the case, and we will be speaking to our airport partners to discuss how we can comply with the industry code of practice. If the code proves to be inadequate, it may be that we have to explore tougher measures — with both industry and government.”
Manchester Airports Group defended its sale of beer in two-pint measures, saying that the double-size glasses were “popular with passengers because it saves them time queueing at the bar”. World Duty Free said: “Miniatures and mixers are sold for consumption at the passenger’s final destination.” The retail giant added that it does advise passengers that duty-free purchases cannot be consumed in flight, but only those travelling “on routes afflicted by disruptive behaviour”.
Readers join call for booze controls
In a Sunday Times Travel poll, readers voted by three to two in favour of restricting pub opening hours at airports. Of 638 readers polled, 55% wanted tighter restrictions, while 37% were in favour of maintaining the status quo.
“Seeing people drinking pint after pint in airports at 6am is intimidating in itself,” said the reader Chris Hughes. Bryan Martin called for “restrictions in airports and on planes [because] alcohol and air travel don’t mix”.
Peter Ainley-Walker suggested “no alcohol served before 10am and breathalyse at the boarding gate”, while Stuart Filsell pointed out that “lack of control in consumption means that restricting opening times is one of the few alternatives”.
Not everyone agreed. “Surely it’s a matter of choice, not another nanny-state interference?” said Paul Walker. J Bischoff added: “It is wonderful to enjoy a glass or two of champagne before a flight. Drinking in moderation is totally acceptable.”
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