Simon Calder: High and dry - the best way to fly

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The Independent Travel

The captain is always right. The Air Navigation Order 2005 says so: "Every person in an aircraft shall obey all lawful commands which the commander of that aircraft may give for the purpose of securing the safety of the aircraft and of persons or property carried therein". Sit back, relax and do as the captain tells you.

Yet as the BA Boeing to Cairo sat at the gate at Heathrow, we passengers aboard the 747 were advised "never believe the captain" by his flight-deck colleague, the senior first officer.

"He told you we were going to be leaving on time. In fact, there's a passenger who's unable to travel with us, and so we will be offloading his baggage, which will delay us by about 10 minutes."

That phrase "unable to travel" could mean anything. A sudden attack of pre-flight nerves? A last-minute domestic emergency? Or, given the heightened state of nervousness about terrorism, some dodgy Giza-bound traveller? Discreet enquiries revealed the reason was none of the above. Instead, article 75 of the Air Navigation Order had been invoked: "A person shall not enter any aircraft when drunk, or be drunk in any aircraft."

This event took place after Christmas, but I mention it because of what happened at Heathrow last week. The bare bones are contained in a statement from Emirates, about their evening departure to the Gulf:

"Following remarks made as the EK004 prepared to depart London Heathrow for Dubai on the evening of Friday, January 8, crew alerted the Metropolitan Police who subsequently boarded the aircraft and detained three passengers. Two men have been subsequently charged in connection with the incident."

The plane returned to the gate, where the passengers were removed and the plane searched. Because of the delay, the impending midnight curfew at Heathrow and the crew going "out of hours", the flight eventually took off the following afternoon . Many passengers arrived at their destinations 24 hours late.

Given the legal proceedings, I can say little about this specific case, but the two men were both charged with being drunk on an aircraft.

Should anyone who has been drinking heavily be allowed on board a plane? At a disruptive passenger seminar in The Hague (where I was talking about stroppy passengers, rather than acting as one), a story was told about a charter flight from Gatwick in which a clearly drunk passenger was taken aboard the plane in a wheelchair because he was incapable of walking. Probably plenty of fellow passengers found this amusing. And I can see that ground staff would probably prefer to remove a problem from Sussex to Spain rather than tell a drunk he's grounded. But do you really want to be on an aircraft in the company of someone who is unable to understand the safety briefing, let alone play a part in the event of an emergency?

The first line of defence used to be the check-in desk, but in these online days the first contact with an airline employee is often at the gate. Passengers have to put up with quite enough without adding another hurdle in the shape of a breath test at the departure gate, but anyone who seems to have been steadying their nerves too enthusiastically in the bar should be easy to spot. A few stern words may be enough to sober them up. If, instead, it provokes hostility, then they are likely to be a problem on board.

Better still, we could emulate Egyptian airports and serve only "Birell". From a distance, the white, red and gold can resembles Stella Artois. But, like a lager version of a desert mirage, it tantalisingly turns out to be "the original non-alcoholic malt beverage" – which is as little fun as it sounds.

Passport, visa, breathalyser?

When your flight finally departs, go easy. "If you are drunk when you arrive at Luanda airport," warns the Foreign Office advice for Angola, "you may be refused entry, detained and deported".

Better, perhaps, to travel on one of the alcohol-free airlines, such as Kuwait Airways – which offers cheap, dry flights from Heathrow to New York. But John Godfrey reports: "Many years back, I took my own gin on board, and asked for tonic, ice and lemon. The stewardess said they did not sell alcohol but if you brought your own, no problem." Officially, though, booze is banned.