Friday, 22 June 2012

A grey area if there ever was one...

Having just landed in the UK from a weeks holiday I've found myself questioning the attitudes of British passengers and crews alike towards alcohol and flying. This aspect of cabin safety is moderated by law but still flights are constantly being subjected to loud, disruptive and even threatening behaviour on a regular basis. Why is it that this behaviour occurs? Is alcohol itself the problem or the people who are drinking it?

During the summer months, airports nationwide experience an increase in passenger numbers and aircraft movements. It is of course the summer rush. Everyone jetting off to the four corners of the globe seeking out warmer climates, sandy beaches and colourful cocktails. To most people, the holiday starts at the airport, and why shouldn't it? The excitement of it all. The crowds and the sounds, the aircraft sat on the appron outside, the airport vehicles rushing round and the anticipation that in a few hours time, you'll be abroad and ready to enjoy your sun, sea and sangria. Everyone usually enjoys themselves in the terminal, like they should of course. But there is always someone who seems to take it too far.

Article 75 of the Air Navigation Order 2005 states that 'A person shall not enter any aircraft when drunk, or be drunk in any aircraft'. This pill is a bit difficult to swallow for most, in fact the statement is always greeted with surprise, shock and often anger when outlined by a member of cabin crew. This is an enforceable law, so why is it such an unknown fact? and why do we still witness drunkenness on board our airliners? 

Your cabin team is primarily on board for the safety of you and your fellow passengers. Of course that is no secret. Unsurprisingly, this task requires absolute control of the cabin throughout the flight. A person or group of people represent a difficulty in maintaining cabin control. The fact that there are a million varieties of 'drunk' doesn't help. Some of the most well known being 'happy drunk', 'aggressive drunk', 'incapable drunk' and 'combination of all of the aforementioned states'. It is impossible to tell how a person will act upon consumption of more alcohol.

It is often said that the law is subject to 'crew discretion'. Now I can't say that I've seen this written in the actual ANO but can understand why it may be so. For example, it is estimated that around 10 million people in the UK suffer from a fear of flying, roughly 1 in 6 people. That means that statistically, 26 people on every easyJet flight to take off suffer from some form of aerophobia. I know for a fact having known people who are scared of flying that a drink (or three!) help to ease such a phobia. After considering this point one can't help but wonder, is it the actual physical state of being drunk that is the issue? Or the person who is drunk?

This month I boarded a Thomas Cook Airlines flight to Diagoras Airport. The airport is situated on the Greek island of Rhodes. It's common knowledge that wherever you go there are different resorts, some livelier than others. Rhodes has Falaraki. Anyone familar with the popular BBC show 'Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents' will be familiar with the general theme of this place. I strapped myself into my seat and prepared for departure in the normal fashion. A few moments later I watched in horror was the eight to ten lads in matching 'Falaraki 2012' T-shirts stomped their way up the aisle of the B757 to take their seats. They were one row ahead. I am a fairly tolerant person and at first gave them the benefit of the doubt. They have every right to enjoy their holiday as much as me. Once the persistent swearing and chanting started things changed. The captain and cabin crew alike added an extra warning onto their greeting messages. They both stated that only alcohol on board could be drank on board, this was served at the cabin crews discretion and that any 'unreasonable behaviour would not be tolerated'. This didn't phase our friends. 

As the flight progressed the drinks service started. The party were loud, they ordered 3 bottles of champagne and a drink each, stereotypical Jack Daniels and Cokes or Southern Comfort and Cokes. A few renditions of the terraces favourite 'There were 10 German bombers in the air' broke out and the group were issued their first warning. Rather than a stern caution you might have expected, they received more of a 'word in your ear' talking to, followed by the ceremonial banter experienced by cabin crew and female police officers alike. This was taken in the girls stride and she proceeded to serve the other passengers. The foul language and the shouting continued as the flight made its way through the night towards Greece. By now another few Champagne bottles had been polished off. The group had made their way from the tipsy, mischievous and slightly boisterous mood they had boarded with, to a state that could safely be described as drunk and disruptive. It was clear that the surrounding passengers were losing patience with the group which had now been inextricably fused with another group containing girls. Fairly inevitable. An hour out and we were all convinced that the police would be meeting this group on landing. The cabin crew had even warned them stating that this would be the case if their behaviour continued. One of the group was clearly frightened by this prospect, his attempts at defusing the group were largely unsuccessful. The ringleader even stated that 'They're not gonna f****** throw us off now, we can do what we want'.

It became clear that the group were now a threat to cabin safety. The rowdiness turned into aggression shortly before landing. If the flight was instead bound for Paphos or Larnaca a brawl would have almost certainly broken out. They were showing worrying signs of confrontation amongst themselves, one altercation  was particularly nasty during the descent.

The cabin crew were most probably breathing a sigh of relief that the situation had not developed into something more dangerous. If they weren't, they should have been. However, I do feel that the cabin crew did not have control of the cabin. Why were they served alcohol? To avoid the inevitable confrontation on refusal of alcohol? To send them to sleep? To shut them up at the time? Whatever their reasoning, it was a dangerous move and created a volatile atmosphere on board. It may be common practise, but I certainly don't think that it's an effective one.

The same group were returning with us back to the UK. It was larger than outbound, they had clearly made friends during the week. Lagers were being purchased and the volume was once again turned up. Hannah and I braced ourselves for what we assumed to be the long flight back to Manchester. What I witnessed instead I couldn't believe. 

Shortly after having our tickets and passports checked the passengers made their way down a ramp onto the apron to board buses to the aircraft. It was then that a few drunken members of the group lit up cigarettes. It was the single most single reckless act I had witnessed at an airport. One of them even stepped onto the bus with it lit and only put it out on disembarkation next to the aircraft. Luckily the fuel truck was leaving as we arrived. Still, they were allowed to board and sat in their seats. This time, although they were split up, a small sub-section were sat behind us. One drink was served each. They weren't served any more. Thankfully, they fell asleep. A far better move by the cabin crew on this flight. 

Whilst sat in the flight deck at Manchester, both the Cabin Manager Joanne and the Captain Stuart informed me that they had received a warning of the group prior to carrying out the flight. The group were told that they were strictly under conditions of carriage for the flight home and would be refused, offloaded or landed and removed from the flight if they even slightly broke these rules. A relief had I have known that prior to boarding.

Why did it take the outbound flight with all of its issues to produce a reaction?

It is clear how airlines view alcohol. Jet2's terms states that 'Only alcoholic drinks purchased on board may be consumed during the flight. reserves the right to serve alcoholic drinks to customers at our absolute discretion'. easyJet's terms mention something similar as does Thomas Cook Airlines. The issue certainly does seem to be down to the particular crew on board. I'm all for having a drink on board and have indulged in that myself but feel that when cabin safety is compromised then it no longer becomes tolerable or acceptable.

In recent months several flights have been diverted due to unruly behaviour on board fuelled by alcohol. Flight BD896 from Moscow to Heathrow had to return to Moscow after a drunk female started dancing erotically in the aisle distressing other passengers. The passenger was confirmed intoxicated when she was arrested.
Flight TCX2022 from Manchester to Tenerife had to accelerate it's approach to Reina Sofia Airport. After an altercation with cabin crew as a result of refusal of alcohol service a drunken pair claimed they were carrying an explosive device. The pair have had their passports confiscated and are currently on bail on the island of Tenerife.
There are many more including violence and inappropriate behaviour each month.

There are always going to be loud, disruptive people on board flights, particularly charter flights to so-called 'bucket and spade' destinations. Alcohol is simply the catalyst added to the ingredients that are already in place. Is the law right? Yes, but please try to police it more effectively. 

I would like to thank the Captain, First Officer, Cabin Manager and her crew for my flight back to the UK and in particular my flight deck visit, even though it was 4am and you all wanted to go home!

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