Drunk air passenger arrests up 50%

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A House of Lords committee report called for tougher rules on the sale of alcohol at airports

Arrests of passengers suspected of being drunk at UK airports and on flights have risen by 50% in a year, a BBC Panorama investigation suggests.

A total of 387 people were arrested between February 2016 and February 2017 - up from 255 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 Home Office is "considering" calls for tougher rules on alcohol.

The arrest figures obtained by Panorama came from 18 out of the 20 police forces with a major airport in their area.

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

'Barmaids in the sky'

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, quit her job last October after 14 years and 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."

Media caption,
Ally Murphy: "Drunk passenger tried to open plane door"

In July 2016 the aviation industry introduced a voluntary code of conduct on disruptive passengers, which most of the big 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.

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."

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
  • About 270m passengers passed through UK airports last year* and about a fifth of all duty-free purchases involved wine and spirits**
  • The Civil Aviation Authority reported a 600% increase in disruptive passenger incidents in the UK between 2012 and 2016 with "most involving alcohol". They say the increase is partly down to improved reporting of incidents

Sources: Airlines UK* and UK Travel Retail Forum**

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.

'There for one reason'

Airlines can limit the amount of alcohol sold to passengers on board flights.

Low-cost airline Jet2 has already banned alcohol sales on flights before 08:00 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."

Your tales of drunken passengers:

  • "One passenger was so drunk he had to have a member of crew do up his seat belt. During landing we had passengers standing up, despite repeatedly being told to sit down. I heard the most despicable things, totally racist and sexist and disgusting." Nikki Webber
  • "There was one woman whose language was vile all through the flight with the hen party. The last straw was once the plane had landed, she walked up the aisle and shouted the vilest language in front of my son." Sharon Richards
  • "As the plane is landing... the lads remove their (seatbelts) and start scrapping really badly. I looked around and I saw one lad kick the girl behind me. They kicked me and without thinking about it I heard myself shouting really loudly at them to sit down and put their seatbelts back on." Tania Chambers
  • "One passenger was so drunk by the end of the flight, he was unable to leave the aircraft unaided by the time we arrived. The departure time was before 8am." Paul Shah
  • "I was seated just behind a stag group who had been drinking in the airport and continued to drink duty free clear spirits from water bottles on the flight. The airline staff did not serve any alcohol that flight and moved a family with young children." David Moult

A House of Lords committee report earlier this year called for tougher rules on the sale of alcohol 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".

Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, said: "I don't accept that the airports don't sell alcohol responsibly. The sale of alcohol per se is not a problem. It's the misuse of it and drinking to excess and then behaving badly."

She said they were working with retailers and staff to make sure they understand the rules.

Watch Panorama: Plane Drunk on Monday 14 August on BBC One at 20:30 BST and afterwards on BBC iPlayer