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Do airports need stricter alcohol regulations?

Bar operators in airports are facing turbulent times thanks to passengers drinking to excess before take off. Airlines want limits brought in and are at loggerheads with airside pubs about the issue.

Airlines call for curbs on excessive drinking at airports

On any other occasion, a pint before breakfast would be likely to raise an eyebrow. But once you’ve made it past airport security, an alcoholic beverage – even at 7am – doesn’t seem quite so outlandish.

In the UK, airside pubs and bars are exempt from the Licensing Act 2003, which restricts when on-­ and off­-trade venues can sell alcohol, meaning travellers can enjoy a tipple as the holiday excitement builds. However, this long­standing tradition has been frequently called into question in recent months as unruly passengers hit headlines around the globe.

A stark rise in the number of disruptive traveller incidents in the UK has sparked calls to curb alcohol sales at airports. The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) reported a 400% increase in disruptive passenger behaviour between 2013 and 2017, with the number of incidents reported reaching 417 last year.

In the first half of 2018 to 16 July, the CAA had already received 202 reports about disruptive passengers from UK airlines, “many involving acts of violent and intimidating behaviour” – though precisely how many of these were fuelled by alcohol was not disclosed.

Being disruptive during a flight carries serious consequences. Travellers risk prosecution for being drunk on board an aircraft and acting in a troublesome manner – and endangering the safety of an aircraft can lead to a five­-year prison sentence in the UK.

Because of the increasing number of incidents, the CAA has called for more prosecutions to tackle violent and drunken airline passengers. Richard Stephenson, director of the UK CAA, said: “Drunken and abusive behaviour on an aeroplane is totally unacceptable. Not only does it upset everyone else, but it can also jeopardise flight safety. Criminal charges should be brought against offenders more often to act as a deterrent – passengers need to know they will face the full weight of the law should they be found guilty of disorderly behaviour.”

Budget airline Ryanair, which operates flights in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, has also been vocal about its disdain towards drunk and disorderly passengers in the past. In 2015, the airline prohibited all duty­-free alcohol in the cabin on flights from the UK to Ibiza in a bid to “improve flying conditions” for passengers and crew following numerous drunken episodes. Then, in August 2017, the carrier called for a ban on all bar and restaurant alcohol sales in UK airports before 10am.

Ryanair’s argument was that airports are profiting from the “unlimited sale of alcohol to passengers” and “leave the airlines to deal with the safety consequences”. The airline also recommended capping the amount of alcohol sold in bars and restaurants during flight delays to two alcoholic drinks per passenger, which would be controlled by the requirement to present boarding cards when purchasing alcohol.

Excess baggage: flights have been disrupted by unruly drunken passengers


A year on since its initial plea, and Ryanair is still eager to see the restrictions put in place. “We continue to call for significant changes to prohibit the sale of alcohol at airports, such as a two-­drink limit per passenger and no alcohol sales before 10am,” a Ryanair spokesperson said.

“It’s incumbent on the airports to introduce these preventative measures to curb excessive drinking and the problems it creates, rather than allowing passengers to drink to excess before their flights.”

But while there is no denying the gravity that disorderly, alcohol­-induced behaviour poses to airports and airlines, not everyone thinks curbing alcohol sales at airport bars and pubs would be the best course of action. British pub chain JD Wetherspoon, which boasts several premises in UK airports including at major hubs such as Gatwick, Heathrow and Aberdeen, says early alcohol sales are only a small part of the sector’s business. Limiting alcohol sales for such venues would therefore be ineffective at tackling the issue, the company believes.

“People come to our pubs to enjoy a wide range of drinks in a regulated and well managed environment,” said JD Wetherspoon spokesman Eddie Gershon. “We don’t see any reason to ban alcoholic drinks as long as the drinks are served by well-­trained staff who know when not to serve someone. If someone chooses to have a whisky at 8am, then that is their choice, as long as they are well behaved. Alcohol before 10am is a minute part of the airport pubs’ business, but they should have the right to serve it. Airlines could look at their own policies on serving alcohol on their aeroplanes, which often causes problems.”

Pointing the finger of blame does little to find a solution, however, and a team effort is always a more powerful form of persuasion. This August, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) joined forces with the travel industry to launch a summer campaign designed to raise awareness of flying responsibly. The Airport Operators Association (AOA) and the UK Travel Retail Forum (UKTRF) both joined the united front to tackle the issue of passengers drinking to excess on or before flights.

Spanning social media platforms Facebook and Instagram, as well as 10 UK­-based airports, the campaign also received the backing of airline Phil Ward, its managing director, said: “The issue of disruptive passenger behaviour caused by drinking too much alcohol affects many airlines. Incidents of disruptive passenger behaviour caused by drinking to excess shows no sign of reducing. We welcome this new initiative to tackle the problem, but the time for taking action to tackle the problem is long overdue. We take a zero-­tolerance approach to disruptive passenger behaviour, and we will always support measures that ensure safe, disruption-­free travel for our crew and customers.”

In the wider spirits industry, the modern-day ethos of ‘drink less but better’ has been resonating well with consumers, who have been trading up to more premium brands and embracing the low-­ and no-­alcohol trend. But it seems it could be some time before this message of moderate consumption travels through to airport pubs with the same vigour.

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