Drinking at the last chance saloon?

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Tim Colehan, assistant director, member and external relations for IATA, reflects on the recent comments made by British Transport Minister Lord Ahmad following a spate of drunken incidents involving UK passengers

Unruly passenger incidents, committed by a tiny minority of passengers in flight, have become a significant issue for airlines in recent years. Statistics from IATA reveal that in 2015 there were 10,854 reports, equating to one unruly passenger incident per 1,205 flights, an increase on the 2014 figure of one for every 1,289 flights.

Disruptive events occur for a variety of reasons, but is excessive alcohol consumption fueling this rise? Lord Ahmad, a newly installed UK transport minister, seems to think so. He has suggested that airport licensing laws should be reviewed. We know that intoxication (either through alcohol or drugs) seems to be a trigger for unruly passenger behavior. But in reality, only 23% of the incidents reported to IATA cited intoxication by alcohol and other psychoactive substances as a cause. Frustration with the flight – such as issues with neighboring passenger(s), lack of meal choice, in-flight entertainment or the seat – mental health problems, job or relationship issues, and being unable to smoke are all thought to be other triggers. It is also important to remember that the majority of unruly passenger incidents take the form of verbal abuse of cabin crew, and refusal to obey commands. This stems from a lack of respect for flight attendants and the important safety role they perform, and is a factor in both alcohol- and non-alcohol-related incidents.

Airlines have put in place guidelines and training for their crews on how to handle unruly passengers, which include preventing further alcohol consumption. But it should also be noted that in most cases intoxication results from consumption before the flight or from the passengers’ own supply without knowledge of the crew, so it is important that airlines and airports work closely together to ensure passengers are not intoxicated before boarding.

IATA believes the cooperative approach recently launched in the UK is the best way forward. Members of the British Air Transport Association, the Airport Operators Association, the Airport Police Commanders Group, the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers and UK Travel Retail Forum have developed a code of conduct, setting out a balanced range of smart measures including:

Airport bars, lounges, restaurants and retail staff to practice the same responsible sale and service selling of alcohol already used by airlines, including limiting or stopping the sale/supply of alcohol. Bars, lounges and restaurants will have a designated premises supervisor (DPS) responsible for selling or supplying alcohol (the norm in licensed premises in the UK). Airlines, bars, lounges, restaurants and retailers agreeing not to sell or supply alcohol to a person who they believe to be intoxicated, and not to run promotions encouraging excessive alcohol consumption. Duty-free retailers advising passengers not to open and consume alcohol before or during their flights, and possible initiatives to use sealed tamper-proof bags.

If this code of conduct proves effective, the industry does not believe that regulations to ban alcohol service and/or impose restrictions on hours of availability are necessary. The vast majority of travelers who drink alcohol prior to their flights do so responsibly. There is also a need to consider the global nature of air travel – a drink taken in a UK airport at 6:00am by a transit passenger may be late in the evening in their country of departure.

Lord Ahmad’s comments and announced review are further evidence that governments around the world are increasingly interested and concerned about the problem of unruly passengers, and that is to be welcomed. However, regulations that ban alcohol sales or regulate timings of when outlets can sell alcohol are entirely premature. The smart and sensible solution is for government, industry, police and passengers to work together as per the UK industry code of conduct outlined above. When implemented, the code should result in fewer unruly passenger incidents and an even safer and more enjoyable air travel experience for all.


Tim Colehan is assistant director, member and external relations for IATA based in Geneva, Switzerland. He is responsible for policy analysis and development as well as working with airline members, regional airline associations and others to articulate and advocate the industry positions to governments and regulators. He leads IATA’s work on dealing with the issue of unruly passengers.

September 9, 2016

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