Why it’s time to screen airline passengers for alcohol abuse

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The number of incidents involving disruptive passengers on aircraft continues to rise. There was a 100% increase from 2015 to 2016, according to figures released by the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority), with 418 flights affected. Alcohol is the most common cause of in-flight disruption. At Gatwick, the UK’s second-largest airport, there have been 113 incidents attributed to drunken behavior this year alone.

Drunken behavior can affect the safety of passengers and staff on board flights, making for a miserable start to a holiday. In many cases, planes have to be diverted, which can cost the airline up to GB£80,000 (US$101,000), depending on the size of the aircraft and the location of the diversion.

The rise in incidents is hardly surprising given that the majority of Britons admit to drinking both before boarding the plane and during the flight. A study by Cheapflights found that UK holidaymakers drank an average of five alcoholic drinks before going on holiday – three at the airport and two more on the plane.

Following the increase in the number of drunken incidents, the UK Government announced in November that it was reviewing the licensing laws on alcohol sales at all airports. The three-month review could spell the end of early-morning drinking in airport bars and restaurants. The Home Office is asking the public for evidence and views on whether introducing alcohol licensing laws at airports in England and Wales could help tackle the problem of drunk and disruptive passengers.

Announcing the review, Home Office minister Victoria Atkins said, “Air travel often marks the start of an exciting holiday abroad and airports are places to eat, drink and shop as we wait to board our flights.

“Most UK air passengers behave responsibly when flying, but any disruptive or drunk behavior is entirely unacceptable. This is an excellent opportunity for all interested parties to engage directly with us, inform our understanding of the problem and identify suitable solutions.”

Unworkable solutions

Some airlines have welcomed the possibility of prohibiting alcohol sales before 10am and limiting passengers to two drinks before a flight.

However, this scheme does not take into consideration the unique environment of an airport and the many passengers who are traveling through different time zones. For example, even though the local time in London might be 10am, for someone flying from the Far East their body clock believes it’s around 6pm. While for a passenger from New York, their 10am is 3pm in London. The real issue that needs to be tackled is preventing problem passengers from flying – whatever the time of day.

Licensing alcohol in airports will not stop problem passengers – people who want to drink to excess will always find a way. In any case, airport outlets serving alcoholic drinks would be unnecessarily penalised through loss of sales if punitive licensing laws were to be put in place.

While it is illegal to be ‘drunk’ on an aircraft, the CAA has not yet set a defined limit for what ‘drunk’ actually is. This leaves airports and airlines unable to identify which passengers can and can’t fly. Setting a specific limit would prevent problem passengers from flying and allow responsible travellers to continue to drink sensibly, as the majority do now.

Screening is the answer

Having worked with many organizations trying to implement screening programmes to prevent incidents in the workplace, we know that using simple breathalyzer tests is an extremely simple, cost-effective method of controlling alcohol abuse. AlcoDigital’s AlcoSaber, for example, provides quick, accurate and instantaneous results.

If a set alcohol limit for passengers were to be put in place, ground staff would be able to test anyone they suspect to be over that limit at the boarding gate using an extremely quick five-second passive screening device. Any passenger who exceeded the limit would be prevented from boarding the flight.

It’s highly likely that this scheme would act as a deterrent to those passengers who are considering over-indulging.

It’s clear that the issue of drunken behavior on flights is an ever-increasing problem. We hope the Government takes on board our recommendations once the review period ends in February.

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