It sometimes seems as though drunk and disorderly plane passengers are rarely out of the news. In 2023, a man was reportedly tasered and dragged off a Jet2 flight from Edinburgh to Lanzarote following an emergency diversion to Madeira.
In the same year, another man was sentenced to 18 months in prison after a drunken rampage on a flight from Dubai to London. And the latest well-publicised incident involved a Ryanair flight from Luton to Lanzarote which was diverted to Portugal during January 2024 so that several men could be removed by police officers.
All too often, the offenders are British: certain flights from the UK are notorious for drunken bad behaviour. One cabin crew member, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Telegraph that routes to “party” destinations such as Ibiza and Mykonos were particularly shameful. “On these, flyers sometimes bother other passengers and become violent,” he added.
But though it’s often brawls and outlandish antics that get reported, even the quietly inebriated can pose a danger to passengers and crew. In a June 2023 report, the International Air Travel Association (IATA) pointed out that any “intoxicated passenger that is not able to follow safety instructions or is incapable of exiting the aircraft in an emergency evacuation is a safety risk”.
Aware of the scale of the problem, airside shops began putting booze in sealed bags in 2019 in order to discourage customers from trying to drink it in the air. A year before that, the travel industry launched a high-profile One Too Many campaign highlighting potential punishments for alcohol-induced bad behaviour in the cabin.
Still, the number of unruly airline passengers continues to grow, with non-compliance, verbal abuse and intoxication being the leading factors according to IATA analysis (non-compliance includes drinking your own alcohol onboard). Its data showed that there was a record-breaking one unruly incident for every 835 flights in 2021; by 2022, this had risen to one in 568 – a 47 per cent increase.
“No one wants to stop people having a good time when they go on holiday – but we all have a responsibility to behave with respect for other passengers and the crew,” said IATA’s Deputy Director General Conrad Clifford at the time.
An £80,000 error of judgement
Under UK law, a convicted passenger could face a two-year prison sentence and a £5,000 fine for being drunk on a plane. If passenger or aircraft safety is compromised, prison time could stretch to five years and, if the plane was forced to divert, the disruptive passenger could be held liable for the airline’s costs, which can be as high as £80,000.
Other countries have similar laws. In France, they’re even more stringent: drunk passengers face up to five years in prison and a €75,000 (£64,000) fine.
Cabin crew are trained in de-escalation techniques and follow a clear protocol according to former flight attendant Saya Nagori, who recently worked with Love Holidays to reveal the worst in-flight behaviour.
“If you get intoxicated during a flight, you’re issued a verbal warning and you’re cut off from receiving alcohol for the remainder of the flight,” she said. “If you continue being disruptive, you’re issued another warning and told you will need to move after one more instance.
“A third instance occurs and you’re moved to a different seat if available, and the pilot will alert security that there’s a passenger that needs to potentially be escorted off the plane when we land at our destination.” In extreme situations, and with the captain’s permission, aircraft staff can also use restraints if a passenger endangers other people or themselves. They can ask other travellers to help too.
The disruptive passengers on January’s Ryanair flight were ultimately at the mercy of the Portuguese legal system. The airline released a statement saying the incident was “now a matter for the local police” though, in reality, the international nature of these events means perpetrators are currently less likely to face punishment.
“Assault a member of staff in a shop or a restaurant and the likelihood is you will be arrested and face prosecution,” IATA said in its 2023 report. “Do it on an international flight and there is a high probability that you won’t be penalised for it. This is because under existing international law (the Tokyo Convention 1963), authorities in the State in which the aircraft is registered have jurisdiction over offences committed onboard.”
Countries are, however, slowly ratifying the Montreal Protocol 2014. This gives a plane’s scheduled destination the right to deal with passenger misdemeanours under their own laws, regardless of the carrier or where the aircraft is registered.
Some countries seem particularly keen to demonstrate that they won’t stand for such behaviour. In a high-profile case, Greek authorities gave a British woman a 17-month prison sentence, suspended for three years, after her Jet2 plane bound for Antalya was forced to divert to Thessaloniki when she punched and tried to bite crew who were attempting to calm her. The airline also banned her for life.
Knowing your limits
Though there’s no official limit to the amount of alcohol passengers can buy on a plane, cabin crew can deny boarding or refuse to serve anyone they think is inebriated. However, due to a lack of concrete guidance, this can lead to conflict (after all, one person’s drunk is another one’s merry – especially after they’ve downed six pints).
Another issue is licensing. Airside outlets are currently exempt from the laws that govern pubs and restaurants and, despite calls to end the discrepancy, the Government rejected the idea in 2021 following a consultation (although its report did acknowledge that “data collection and sharing on alcohol-related disruptive incidents needs to be significantly improved through increased cooperation between relevant parties”).
Dr Katherine Severi, chief executive at The Institute of Alcohol Studies, believes this was a mistake. “As we called for back in 2017, along with various airlines, the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, the Licensing Act should be extended to cover the area beyond passport control,” she said.
“This would better regulate the sale of alcohol in airports and place a legal requirement on staff not to serve alcohol to people who are already intoxicated, as in licensed premises on the High Street. Although 86 per cent of UK adults support this, back in 2021 the UK government decided not to extend it. With a rise in incidents, now would be a good time to rethink that decision.”
British carriers have adopted their own tactics to discourage drunken behaviour. Jet2 doesn’t sell alcohol onboard before 8am, while in 2023 reports surfaced of Ryanair banning alcohol bought in airport shops from the cabin on some flights to Spain.
Simple Flying reported that passengers had been sent emails explaining that their baggage would be searched before boarding, with purchases needing to be placed in the hold or disposed of. However, a Ryanair spokesperson told The Telegraph: “As per Ryanair’s T&Cs, passengers can carry duty-free alcohol on board but must not consume it during the flight.”
Nevertheless, airlines are understandably keen to stamp out bad behaviour, which affects staff morale as well as damaging brand image. “Passengers who are rude or aggressive can be highly disruptive and distressing for cabin crew and fellow travellers. This type of behaviour is completely unacceptable,” said Anna Bowles, Head of Consumer at the UK Civil Aviation Authority.