Early-morning drinking could soon be eradicated in UK airports

The tradition of a glass of wine or a pint of lager before a flight, regardless of the time of day, could soon be in jeopardy in the UK. Elliot Gardner looks into the recent recommendations from a House of Lords select committee regarding alcohol at airports.


A House of Lords select committee has made recommendations to the UK Government that the current regulations, which exempt UK airports from normal restrictions under the Licensing Act 2003, should be amended to crack down on drunk and disorderly behaviour at airports and on flights.

The committee wants to eliminate the sale of alcohol early in the morning. Currently there are no blanket rules regarding licensing hours, with 24-hour off licences being found across the UK, and restrictions are placed on the sale of alcohol through the use of bylaws put into place by local authorities and establishments. UK airports, though, are exempt regardless of the rules put into place by their local council.

An increasingly prevalent problem

The April House of Lords select committee report said the following: “No one travelling on an international flight can fail to notice that, once they have gone through customs, control of the sale of alcohol seems to be relaxed, and the permitted hours even more so.”

Being drunk while a passenger on an aircraft is actually not allowed under Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) rules, but most airlines do offer alcohol for sale on-board, and cannot control how much passengers drink before boarding, beyond denying them access to the flight if they feel the passenger is a potential risk to the safety of the aircraft. Indeed safety is the purported reason behind these proposed changes, with select committee chairwoman Baroness McIntosh of Pickering saying that “[current drink rules] can lead to dangerous situations and must be changed.”

The issue has been raised several times in the past few years, with budget airline Jet2 in 2015 rolling out the implementation of lifetime bans for disruptive drunk passengers. Jet2 was one of the high profile contributors to the select committee report, stating that the matter is an increasingly prevalent problem. In fact the airline reported that over half of all passenger disruptions, including verbal abuse to staff and fellow passengers, and even attempts to open cabin doors, were fuelled or exacerbated by alcohol.

Enforcing licensing laws

While the main issue being reported on is the enforcement of standard licensing hours, the other major problem raised is regulation on just who alcohol is being served to.

Gatwick Airport falls under the jurisdiction of Sussex police, which has in the past carried out several test purchases using secret shoppers. A spokesperson from the force was reported by the Independent to have claimed that all but one of the premises on-site were found to have sold alcohol to those under 18 years old, however “no sanctions were possible due to none of the Licensing Act 2003 offences being relevant for airside premises, and because of this, engagement with the owners of the licensed premises, including very large well-known providers, was very difficult.”

Making airport pubs and bars subject to the same legislation as outside premises would undoubtedly crack down on illegal alcohol sales, and further recommendations have been made to limit alcohol consumption altogether. Many airlines restrict passengers to two drinks during their flight, and one proposed plan is to extend this to the airport as well.

While this prospect has traditionally been criticised as difficult to implement, security methods such as boarding pass scans have been recommended enforcement strategies, though the jury is out on whether this would stamp out disruptive behaviour, or detract from the countless vital security operations already in action in airport terminals.