Simon Calder: UK aviation's alarming index of inebriation

The man who pays his way
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The Independent Travel

When sound engineers need to test a microphone, they traditionally ask the guest: "What did you have for breakfast?" If the question were posed to travellers stepping off a morning flight from Bristol, the answer might well be "A full English and a pint of lager".

Bar Zero 9 at Bristol airport invites passengers to "upgrade your breakfast". How do you do that, then? By drinking a pint of beer. The standard bacon, eggs, sausage, beans and tomatoes costs £8.50; pay a tenner and you can "add any pint of Fosters or Amstel". A pint for £1.50 in an airport bar? Cheers. Yet that is not the first early morning opportunity to buy cheap alcohol at Bristol or any other major UK airport. As soon as you clear security, you are confronted by row after row of strong liquor. The term "duty-free" is no longer accurate for most purchases at British airports; passengers heading for EU destinations pay the same rates of duty and VAT that applies at your local supermarket. Still, some travellers are tempted to buy booze, and decide to open their spoils on the plane, even though most airlines do not allow it. Other fliers can't wait that long, and "pre-load" before boarding.

The results can be ugly and potentially dangerous. You may recall a recent incident in which a Virgin Australia plane transmitted an alarm that a possible hijack was in progress. The jet from Brisbane was, to quote one early report, "forced to land" at Bali – scene of two awful terrorist outrages in 2002 and 2005. It soon emerged that flight VA41 had been destined for the Indonesian island anyway, and that the "hijacker" was Matt Lockley, a plumber from Queensland. It was alleged he had attempted to enter the cockpit thinking it was the toilet. (If anyone should know the difference between a flight deck and a WC, a plumber should. Or, come to think of it, a pilot.)

Mr Lockley rejected reports that he had been drinking, blaming the episode on painkillers and emotional stress. But alcohol indisputably figures in many in-flight incidents, as Civil Aviation Authority data reveals. I have trawled through the "reportable occurrences" for 2011 and 2012; in almost half the cases where a trigger was stated, that trigger was drink – far more than any other cause. Next most common was mobile phone use, the subject in 8 per cent of cases.

It is depressingly easy to build a picture of a typical alcohol-fuelled incident. A passenger either boards the plane already intoxicated or sneaks their own alcohol on board. Cabin crew are the target of abuse in three-quarters of cases. Violence is used in one in 14 incidents. If the captain decides that the situation is dangerous for passengers or crew, he or she will divert so that the offender can be removed: expensive for the airline, inconvenient for other travellers. Two days before the Bali hijack-that-never-was, a flight from Munich to New York diverted to Dublin to offload a drunken passenger.

Disruption in the cabin creates danger beyond the people immediately involved. In the event of an emergency evacuation, every passenger needs their wits about them. And anything that distracts the crew from the safety of everyone on board is potentially hazardous.

Going through the CAA index of inebriation, there are plenty of cases where the pilots had to declare a "go-around": abandoning the landing because a disruptive passenger jeopardised a safe touchdown. While such missed approaches are normal manoeuvres for which flight crew are well trained, they add unnecessarily to the workloads of flight crew and air-traffic controllers.

A tonic for the moronic?

Should drinking, like smoking, be banned aboard aircraft? After the Bali incident, I posed that question on social media. Among the self-selecting respondents, those who want to carry on drinking outnumber – by five to one – people who believe drinking and flying do not mix.

"Don't spoil it for the rest of us – a G&T is all part of the experience," said one. Others called for existing laws to be rigorously enforced: "Lifetime bans for threatening aircraft safety may make people think twice."

Jennifer Vesey from Essex has a three-point manifesto to cut drink-fuelled incidents:

"1. Boarding pass to be stamped every time you buy a drink in the airport or on the plane, with a maximum number of units allowed.

"2. Entry to the aircraft refused at the gate if over the limit. On the plane, once you've hit the limit, no more drink.

"3. Duty-free alcohol to be delivered direct to the aircraft and handed over after the flight."

While these suggestions are considered, you might want to choose an airline on which alcohol is banned. For example, Kuwait Airways offers the only drink-free (as opposed to free-drink) flights from London to New York.

Smoke and ire

Some smokers who are anxious fliers turn to alcohol in a bid to calm their nerves. Others simply ignore the smoking ban.

From the solemn warnings during the safety briefing, you might imagine that anyone found tampering with smoke detectors in the on-board loo gets locked up for years (in prison, not in the aircraft toilet). In fact, the accounts contained in CAA data suggest that offenders who interfere with safety systems may face nothing harsher than a stiff ticking-off.

The CAA describes a typical case aboard a UK-registered 747: "Passenger found to have tampered with a toilet smoke detector, with wet tissues stuffed in the detector. Cigarette smell noted." What was the punishment for jeopardising the safety of a Jumbo-load of passengers and crew? The culprit was "given a stern warning".