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TOP STORY: Airlines call for alcohol restrictions

BBC show ‘Plane Drunk’ highlights dangers of easily accessible alcohol

The Home Office says it is “considering” calls for tougher rules on alcohol, as results of a BBC Panorama investigation show that arrests of passengers suspected of being drunk at UK airports and on flights rose by 50% in the last year.

A total of 387 people were arrested in the twelve months to February 2017 – up from 255 people the previous year. Meanwhile, more than half of cabin crew who responded to a survey said they had witnessed disruptive drunken passenger behaviour at UK airports.

The arrest figures obtained by Panorama came from 18 out of the 20 police forces with a major airport in their area, chiming with findings from the Civil Aviation Authority, who reported that most of the 600% increase in disruptive passenger incidents in the UK between 2012 and 2016 involved the use of alcohol.

Trade body Airlines UK said it should be made illegal for people to drink their own alcohol on board a plane.


A total of 19,000 of the Unite union’s cabin crew members were surveyed and 4,000 responded, with one in five saying they had suffered physical abuse.

A former cabin crew manager with Virgin, Ally Murphy, who quit her job last October after 14 years, told Panorama: “People just see us as barmaids in the sky.

“They would touch your breasts, or they’d touch your bum or your legs. I’ve had hands going up my skirt before.”

Code of practice – a load of hot air?

In July 2016, the aviation industry introduced a voluntary code of conduct on disruptive passengers, which most of the major airlines and airports signed up to.

The code’s advice included asking retailers to warn passengers not to consume duty-free purchases on the plane, while staff were also asked not to sell alcohol to passengers who appeared drunk.

However, Panorama found more than a quarter of cabin crew surveyed were unaware of the code of practice and, of those who had heard of it, only 23% thought it was working.

One anonymous crew member told Panorama: “The code of conduct isn’t working… we’re seeing these incidents on a daily, a weekly, a monthly basis. It’s the alcohol mainly in the duty free that is the significant problem.”

Current rules for passengers consuming alcohol while on board aircraft

Alcohol in the air

Entering an aircraft when drunk or being drunk on an aircraft is a criminal offence, with a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment.

Licensing laws which prevent the sale of alcohol outside permitted hours do not apply to airside sales of alcohol at UK international airports. Bars can remain open to serve passengers on the earliest and latest flights - from 04:00 in some cases.

Manchester Airport is one of the signatories but when Panorama’s undercover reporter asked at World Duty Free whether she could open alcohol bought at a duty free shop to consume on the plane, she was told “officially probably not, unofficially I think you’ll get away with it”. Another shop in the airport did give the right advice.

World Duty Free said it was committed to dealing with the issue and that it displays “clear advisory notices at till points, on till receipts and on carrier bags that remind customers that alcohol purchases cannot be opened until their final destination is reached”.

Airlines UK, which represents carriers such as Virgin, British Airways and EasyJet, wants the government to amend the law to make consumption of a passenger’s own alcohol on board an aircraft a criminal offence.

Airlines call for action

In response to the documentary, Ryanair called for:

  • a ban on the sale of all alcohol in bars and restaurants before 10am
  • introducing the mandatory use of boarding cards when purchasing alcoholic drinks in bars and restaurants (in the same way a boarding card is needed for airport purchases) and limiting the number of drinks per boarding pass to a maximum of two
  • controlling the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants to passengers during delays by limiting the number of drinks per boarding pass to a maximum of two

Rival low-cost airline Jet2 has already banned alcohol sales on flights before 8am, and managing director Phil Ward agreed further action was needed.

“I think they [airports] could do more. I think the retailers could do more as well.

“Two litre steins of beer in bars, mixes and miniatures in duty free shops, which can only be there for one reason – you know, they’re items that are not sold on the high street.

“We can’t allow it not to change.”

The current Licensing Act (2003) does not apply to the sale of alcohol at airports. Earlier this year, a House of Lords committee report called for the rules to be toughened, concluding that “there is no justification for the Licensing Act not applying to sales airside at airports.”

Committee chair Baroness McIntosh of Pickering said: “We didn’t hear one shred of evidence to show the voluntary code was either working now or had any possible vestige of success in working any time soon.”

The Home Office said it was considering the report’s recommendations, which include revoking the airports’ exemption from the Licensing Act, “and will respond in due course”.

You can watch clips of the documentary by clicking through to the BBC Panorama Twitter page (via quote below):