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Aviation Minister, Lord Ahmad, “examining” airport alcohol sales

Many of you will have noticed reports in the press that the sale of alcohol at airports and on planes is currently being reviewed by Lord Ahmad, the newly appointed Aviation Minister.

I enjoy the first G&T of the holiday at the airport, before boarding – who doesn’t? It helps to ease the process of passage through an airport, which, let’s face it, can be something of an ordeal. The question now, though, is whether the irresponsible few are going to spoil things for the rest of us.

Lord Ahmad has said that “I don’t think that we want to kill merriment altogether”, which is reassuring to a degree, but it will be interesting to see what the outcome of his review is, especially given statements by the Government even relatively recently that it had no specific plans to address the issue of alcohol-related disorder on flights.

Police statistics obtained by the Press Association in response to a Freedom of Information Act request disclose that at least 442 people have been held on suspicion of being drunk on an aircraft or at an airport in the last two years. In one recent incident, a female passenger punched an Easyjet pilot in the face, and a Ryanair flight from Luton to Bratislava had to be diverted to Berlin following a mid-air fracas involving members of a stag party.

However, when one considers that over 251 million passengers passed through UK airports in 2015 and there were over 2.1 million flights, the conclusion that such incidents are very rare indeed is inescapable.

In legal terms, the Licensing Act 2003 does not apply to alcohol sales on aircraft or airside at an airport (once through check in, passport control and security). This means that there is no need for a premises licence, with the attendant restrictions on operating hours or, indeed, age for those purchasing alcohol. This means that, technically speaking, an 11 year old could purchase a pint at 5 in the morning.

It would be open to Lord Ahmad to change this position in relation to sales of alcohol at airports because the relevant section of the Act, s173, gives the Secretary of State a reserved power to remove the exemption that applies to them. However an amendment to the primary legislation would be required to bring about a need for a licence for sales of alcohol on aircraft themselves.

Of course, the fact that the Licensing Act does not apply to these sales of alcohol does not mean that they are taking place without any controls whatsoever. If that were the case, then the number of incidents would doubtless be a lot higher. Airside operators and airlines alike have their own policies and procedures in place to ensure that alcohol is sold responsibly, and certainly would not want to jeopardize their relationship with airport operators such as Heathrow Airport Holdings, formerly BAA. I have seen age verification being carried out at an airside bar and of course those operators will be implementing Challenge 21 or 25 policies in line with their internal procedures for sites elsewhere in their estate.

The Airport Operators Association has recently published the UK Aviation Industry Code of Practice on Disruptive Passengers, in conjunction with UK Airport Police Commanders and organisations such as the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers. Signatories to the Code participate voluntarily. The Code emphasises three core principles: passengers are responsible for their own behaviour, disruptive behaviour cannot and will not be tolerated, and reducing disruptive behaviour is a shared responsibility of all partners on the ground and in the air. However, it also says that, whilst alcohol consumption is a factor contributing to disruptive behaviour, it is not the only factor.

The Code requires signatories to train their staff to ensure that alcohol is sold responsibly, and airports to ensure that their bars, lounges and restaurants implement best practice, including establishing Best Bar None or equivalent schemes. The Code prohibits sales of alcohol to intoxicated persons and limits the consumption of alcohol on flights to that sold there – as opposed to passengers dipping into bottles of spirits that they have bought in Duty Free.

Against the background of what is a comprehensive, if voluntary, Code, it remains to be seen what further measures the Government might introduce. In the meantime, for those of you still to depart on holiday this year, I hope you enjoy your pre-flight G&T. Cheers!