Drunk and disorderly passengers have long been a bugbear for UK airports. Last year, a BBC Panorama investigation found that arrests of passengers suspected of being drunk at UK airports and on flights rose by 50% in the period from February 2016 to February 2017.

Now, the UK’s Home Office has claimed that lax regulation of alcohol sales at airports is a key contributor to disruptive behaviour. The government is calling for evidence to assess the impact of extending its Licensing Act – which regulates alcohol sales in bars and retailers across the country – to drinking establishments at airports.

Under the current rules, airport bars and pubs can operate outside current licensing laws, meaning that alcohol can effectively be sold round the clock. According to a House of Lords Select Committee report published in April last year, poor practices are allowed to reign after passengers pass through customs, as certain offences (e.g. selling drinks to underage drinkers) do not pertain to airside premises under the Licensing Act.

“Most UK air passengers behave responsibly when flying, but any disruptive or drunk behaviour is entirely unacceptable,” says a spokesperson from the UK Home Office. “The Home Office will issue a call for evidence to assess the impact an extension of the Licensing Act to airside premises could have on reducing alcohol related disorder at UK airports.”

The move has reignited a debate about how to deal with drunken passengers, who can cause safety and security problems on-board aircraft.

The response of airlines

Airlines that bear the brunt of inebriated passengers on-board have welcomed the potential extension of the Licensing Act. Low-cost flyer Jet2 dealt with 536 disruptive incidents during the summer of 2016, with more than half reportedly fuelled by alcohol.

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“We are encouraged that the Home Office has committed to issuing a call for evidence on this, and we look forward to working with them and the rest of industry to find a solution to this growing problem,” said Jet2 managing director Phil Ward in a statement.

“Airlines have been taking positive steps by increasingly limiting alcohol sales to inebriated passengers.”

Irish airline Ryanair has also welcomed the news. Following the Panorama investigation, the company called for significant changes to prohibit the sale of alcohol at airports, including the implementation of a two-drink limit per passenger and the prevention of alcohol sales before 10am.

“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,” said a Ryanair spokesperson in January, after a violent passenger forced a Dublin-bound flight to make an unscheduled stop in Spain.

However, this outlook has been rejected by one of the UK’s top pub chains. Last year, head of JD Wetherspoon Tim Martin claimed that the company’s pubs sold less alcohol in airports compared to the high street, indicating that passengers do modify their behaviour before flying. The decision to limit drinking at all airports, he argued, would therefore be unjustified.

“I am surprised that pubs are felt to be the source of the problem,” Martin told VICE, in response to the Home Office’s proposed extension to its Licensing Act. “I would favour a more targeted approach aimed at certain bars or certain airports, if problems arise, rather than draconian action across the board.”

Controlling alcohol consumption

UK airports have already taken steps to try and curb irresponsible drinking. The Airport Operators Association (AOA) and a number of other organisations banded together in 2016 to create the UK Aviation Industry Code of Practice on Disruptive Passengers. More than 20 airports have signed up as voluntary notaries to the code, which contains a number of suggested activities for dealing with excessive drinking.

Karen Dee, chief executive of the AOA, says that these airports now host regular forums and working group meetings to reduce disruptive incidents. For example, some airports have introduced intelligence-led and high-visibility patrols at drop-off areas or boarding gates for problematic flights.

“Staff in bars and restaurants are trained to act preventively and tackle behaviour before it becomes an incident,” says Dee. “At the same time, the handling agent at the gate will be aware that that particular passenger may need to be asked a few additional questions to check their suitability to fly before allowing them to board.”

“Ryanair called for significant changes to prohibit the sale of alcohol at airports.”

Dee claims that initial data from the Civil Aviation Authority shows the number of disruptive incidents has stayed the same in 2017, despite provisional data for the year showing an increase in passenger numbers of over 6%. She argues, therefore, that enforcing the voluntary code at airports is working and will ultimately be more effective than new government legislation.

“In fact, we already have different licensing regimes operating in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but that does not seem to have a significant effect on the number of incidents, that is why we think the code – which focuses action at all points of the passenger journey – is the best way forward.”

Dee also notes that airlines have been taking positive steps by increasingly limiting alcohol sales to inebriated passengers. Nevertheless, the onus is on the airlines to ensure passengers are aware of the potential consequences of their actions.

“It’s important that airlines communicate clearly to their passengers about their duty to consume alcohol responsibly and the consequences if they don’t, ranging from fines to prison sentences – though often we find that the risk of losing a holiday by being denied boarding is the most effective one!” says Dee.

An international problem

Although the UK Home Office’s tougher stance has shone on a spotlight on the UK’s alcohol issues, the problem is not an isolated one. For example, the Nordic Alcohol and Drug Policy Network (NordAN) argues that although Nordic countries have some of the toughest regulations on alcohol in the world, these often don’t apply to airports or airlines operating in those regions.

In 2012, NordAN called for airlines to end giving out free alcohol on board and to rethink their policies. Most airlines do not allow intoxicated passengers to board aircraft, but pressure to be service-minded can mean that airlines ignore policies, a problem that can also be attested to businesses operating in airports.

NordAN general secretary Lauri Beekmann says that incidents caused by overconsumption of alcohol should not be attributed to either airports or airlines specifically. Rather, the responsibility lies with both to cooperate, and for more to be done by governmental bodies to highlight the issue.

“Both sides should come together and understand that although they are businesses they are still serving people and they should put passengers before any economic interests,” says Beekmann. “As a civil society organisation which is focusing on alcohol policy from the health point of view, we do think restrictive [alcohol] policies should be ensured by the airports and the airlines.”

NordAN is currently hoping to start a project advocating for the European Commission to do more to tackle issues caused by alcohol, as well as communicate with airlines and airports through events, seminars and conferences. Beekmann claims that the UK’s extension to its Licensing Act could set an example for other nations to follow.

“The initiative has to start from somewhere and I think that the UK’s airports have a positive position to show leadership and to show responsibility, and also show other regions in Europe that it’s not only about business – it’s about safety and responsibility.”