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Booze-fuelled air rage: Should alcohol be banned on planes?

Good start? Poster at Bristol airport offering breakfast and a pint (file photo) (Simon Calder)
Good start? Poster at Bristol airport offering breakfast and a pint (file photo) (Simon Calder)

Two recent inflight brawls – both on Ryanair flights from Edinburgh to Tenerife – have drawn renewed attention to the problems of drink-fuelled air rage. On the first occasion, Spanish police arrested the perpetrators on arrival in the Canary Islands. On the second, the plane from Scotland’s capital was diverted to Porto in Portugal for the troublesome passengers to be offloaded.

Passengers on these and many other flights have spoken out about their scary ordeal as violence erupted in a confined environment.

“Air rage” threatens the safety of passengers and crew. The European Union Air Safety Agency (EASA) says: “Any kind of unruly or disruptive behaviour whether related to intoxication, aggression or other factors introduces an unnecessary risk to the normal operation of a flight.”

Many of these incidents are fuelled by excess alcohol. Drunkenness and disruption draw the crew away from their normal safety duties. They also cause a potential hazard in the event of an emergency evacuation – when every passenger needs their wits about them.

Amy Leversidge, general secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa), told The Independent: “These sorts of things are really distracting to the cabin crew and the pilots. There’s lots more that could be done to make sure that there’s a good culture and good behaviours on the flight.”

How bad is the problem, and what are the possible solutions? These are the key questions and answers.

Is there such a thing as a typical case of air rage?

EASA asserts: “Unruly passengers threaten the safety of 1,000 flights a year.” That is an average of almost three a day. Every month, on average, a flight has to make an emergency landing due to unruly behaviour.

Every incident is different, but many involve alcohol as a contributory factor. The ban on smoking and vaping, as well as the anxiety some people feel about flying, can contribute to a traveller’s stress. Alcohol is often considered an alternative.

A disruptive passenger typically boards an aircraft after having had several drinks, and proceeds to consume more on board – either provided by the cabin crew or surreptitiously swigged from duty-free bottles. Their behaviour may be exacerbated by drugs. The individual can then become loud and aggressive, possibly threatening cabin crew and other passengers.

What are the rules on drinking on planes?

You cannot be drunk aboard an aircraft: you are not allowed to board a plane if you are intoxicated, nor drink excessively once on a flight.

The maximum penalty under UK law is a £5,000 fine and two years in prison – or up to five years in jail if the culprit is found guilty of “endangering the safety of an aircraft”.

The Civil Aviation Authority says: “Airlines have a right to refuse to carry passengers that they consider to be a potential risk to the safety of the aircraft, its crew or its passengers.”

But that doesn’t stop a fair number of people boarding planes after several drinks and consuming more alcohol once flying.

How easily available is alcohol to airline passengers?

In the UK and many other nations, drinking is feasible from the moment you arrive at an airport. At a typical British airport, bars are open “landside” (before the security check) and, more particularly, “airside” (after security) from first thing in the morning until the last flight departs.

Many travellers regard a drink while they wait for their (possibly delayed) plane as an essential part of the holiday experience.

Hospitality businesses at the airports welcome the spending, as do airports – which take a substantial slice of the revenue and use it to keep passenger charges down.

An increasing trend is for passengers to pay a flat fee for entry to an airport lounge in which alcohol is available – sometimes in unlimited quantities. Some holiday companies are including “free” lounge access as part of their offer to customers.

In addition, duty-free sales, particularly of miniatures of vodka, whisky or gin can provide an additional supply of alcohol, at least for those who ignore the requirement for them to be exported intact to the final destination.

Once on board the plane, passengers are typically either offered free drinks by cabin crew or invited to buy them.

Can you drink your own alcohol on board?

No – according to almost every airline’s rules.

Jet2, which has long been tackling alcohol-fuelled disruptive behaviour on its flights, says: “You may not bring on board alcohol for the purposes of consumption whilst on the aircraft. Only alcoholic drinks purchased on board may be consumed during the flight.” This does not have quite the status of a law. But since it is implied to be a command from the captain, all passengers are expected to obey it.

Some airlines have made an exception. For example, in the past Royal Brunei has positively encouraged travellers to bring their own alcohol on board – with cabin crew serving mixers as required to passengers.

What’s the solution?

“Passengers need to be made to understand that tanking yourself up in the terminal isn’t going to get your holiday off to a good start,” a senior member of cabin crew for a budget airline told The Independent.

At the departure gate, ground staff could breathalyse passengers who are suspected of being over the drink-driving limit in England, Wales and Northern Ireland: 35 micrograms of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath. This corresponds to about two pints of beer, or two glasses of wine, or two double-measures of spirits for men – less for women. It is regarded as a reasonable limit for a passenger.

Once on board, consumption of alcohol could be more strictly policed – though cabin crew duties are already onerous.

To stop travellers surreptitiously drinking their own supplies in flight, duty-free drink could be sealed in a “security tamper evident bag” (known in the trade as a “Steb”), making it tougher for passengers to open and consume alcohol. There could even be a check at the end of the flight to identify anyone who has broken the seals.

Anything else?

Some effective persuasion could come from making examples of people who cause trouble – for example by pursuing them through the courts for the costs arising from a diversion. The CAA says: “Diversion costs typically range from £10,000 to £80,000 depending on the size of the aircraft and where it diverts to.”

Long term, perhaps alcohol will be banned from airports and/or airlines. Such a move would be deeply unpopular: many people, especially me, relish a drink while waiting for a plane and once on board. Many people believe it is reasonable to consume alcohol in moderation and that they are able to behave decently after a couple of drinks.

But smoking was also once permitted. In the late 1980s, British Airways even handed out cigars to passengers on Concorde after their meals.

BA started banning smoking on its flights in 1990, and by the end of the 20th century the habit was banned more or less globally. The habit is now regarded as entirely unacceptable.

Views can change swiftly – and, heaven forbid, were there to be a fatal incident involving drink-fuelled air rage, calls for a ban will increase.

Is alcohol banned on any transport?

Yes. A significant number of airlines ban alcohol completely. The national carrier for Saudi Arabia says: “Saudia does not serve or permit passengers to carry or drink alcoholic beverages on its flights.”

Egyptair has a more opaque policy, saying: “You are not allowed to consume alcohol onboard our aircraft (whether purchased as duty free from us or someone else or otherwise obtained) unless it has been served to you by us.”

Consuming alcohol or carrying an open container of alcohol is banned on ScotRail and at stations in Scotland; on trains and buses in Northern Ireland; and on London’s public transport.

ScotRail introduced an alcohol ban in 2020 when staff reported there were significant numbers of drunk passengers were ignoring Covid rules. Forty months on it’s still in place.

No alcohol can be drunk at any station in Scotland or on board any ScotRail train, and passengers must not carry visible alcohol – though “alcohol can be carried in a bag where it cannot be seen”.

Alcohol is banned on some non-ScotRail trains in Scotland, and on some services in England and Wales – particularly around major sporting events.

The 9.52am departure on Fridays from Aberdeen to Newcastle on LNER is also singled out for attention. The train operator says: “We expect a number of large groups to be travelling on this train, so to help make it a pleasant experience for everyone, we'll be operating an alcohol-free policy for part of the journey.

“This means that alcohol cannot be brought onto or purchased on board our trains at any stop between Aberdeen and Newcastle.”

Passengers tempted to try to sneak drink on board are warned: “Customers may be searched before boarding.”

Listen to Amy Leversidge, general secretary of the pilots’ union, Balpa, talking to Simon Calder