Simon Calder: Celebrity or not, the aviation laws are clear

The man who pays his way
  • @SimonCalder

Drunk, or just desperate? The actor Gérard Depardieu has explained that it was the latter that led to his urinating in the aisle aboard flight AF5010 as it departed from Paris Charles de Gaulle to Dublin on Tuesday. The star of Cyrano de Bergerac was caught short while the plane was taxiing; after M Depardieu's impromptu performance, the captain turned the aircraft around and went back to the gate. The actor was taken off the plane – presumably much to the relief of fellow passengers.

Some on board may have thought he was drunk, but the actor's publicist says the cause was a medical condition, now identified as a prostate problem. Whatever the reason, the event was distressing for all concerned – except, intriguingly, the person who handles social media for the Air France subsidiary involved, CityJet.

The airline's straightlaced official statement said merely that the plane "was delayed due to an incident on board involving a passenger who refused to remain in his seat as the aircraft was taxiing on the runway". But on Twitter, @cityjet cheerfully revealed: "As you may have seen on the news, we are busy mopping the floor of one of our planes this morning", which may strike you as too much information in 140 characters. A few minutes later, the airline tweeted that: "We'd also like to remind all passengers that our planes are fully equipped with toilet facilities."

True, but off the point. The actor's discomfiture arose because he was not allowed to use what cabin crew call the "lav" while the plane was on an active taxiway. Aviation law is absolutely clear: passengers must remain seated with their safety belts on until the plane takes off and reached a safe altitude or reaches the terminal. In some circumstances, for example when a long wait on the Tarmac is anticipated, the rule may be relaxed, but there is no obligation to allow this.

CityJet warns that if you "fail to comply with any instructions of the crew", who presumably were ordering M Depardieu to sit down, then "we may take such measures as we deem reasonably necessary to prevent continuation of such conduct", and "you may be disembarked and refused onward carriage".

Every issue of the excellent magazine Aviation Security International has a spread entitled Air Watch that is devoted to "Hijacks", "Sabotage & Attacks" and "Unruly Passengers" from the previous months. The last category is, fortunately, easily the biggest, and a disproportionate number of those involved are celebrities – doubtless a result of the "Do you know who I am?" syndrome.

Alcohol features in many of the diversions that captains are forced to make because of inflight disruption – which suggests that airlines could usefully follow the lead of many carriers from the Islamic world and ban drinking. But Philip Baum, the editor of Aviation Security International says there is no need to go that far: "I certainly wouldn't ban alcohol, but I'd do something to reduce the excessive promotion of it in the aviation environment. Airports push alcohol at duty free and airside bars. And where else, other than an airport business-class lounge, do you find free bars where you can pour yourself as much as you like?"

Only in the "green room" where TV talk-show guests congregate. Viewers beware.

An intoxicating dilemma

M Depardieu may not have been the worse for wear, but Aviation law stipulates that no passenger may board a plane when drunk – not least because of the danger posed to other travellers. However, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest this rule is flouted – not least by passengers who have quenched their thirst in the executive lounges. These are the airline's most valuable customers, so perhaps you can understand a reluctance to deny boarding to them.

The safety manager for one European airline suggests the EU's passenger-rights legislation may also be a factor: "If I deny you boarding because I smell alcohol on you, you may well be sober by the time anyone third party tests you. At that time, you can turn round and say that you were never drunk and that you were unfairly denied boarding, and demand compensation."

Philip Baum of Aviation Security International agrees that airlines feel commercial pressure to be lenient about alcohol. "It would be better if we created a level playing field and had airports enforce standards – from preventing drunks boarding flights to controlling quantity of hand baggage being taken onto flights, which would also speed up security checks."