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BIG STORY: The growing issue of alcohol and flying

Alcohol-related problems in the context of flying are getting more and more usual and also more attention through media. In recent weeks we have read about incidents also concerning Nordic airlines and airports, where flights were diverted due to someone’s drunken behaviour. Almost every week someone somewhere in the world media asks if it is time to stop (also this week here and here). Starting our flights we still hear that “this is a non-smoking flight”. What once was normal, is now unimaginable. Will it also happen to drinking alcohol?
We turned to Petter Førde, a captain with 36 years of experience and who is currently also the president of Pilot Association Norway.

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Lauri Beekmann: Data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) shows that unruly passengers are more and more common and very often alcohol is in that mix. Media covers the most colourful incidents, and it seems that different stakeholders have started to look for a solution. Should it be regulated at the airports? Should the airlines introduce a total ban or stricter regulations? Where do you see the responsibility lies?

Petter Førde: First of all, yes, it is a growing problem, and the reason is difficult to say. If you look at the Scandinavian countries, people are travelling a lot. We have charter flights, four or five o’clock in the morning and people are sitting at the bar drinking beer. Normally they wouldn´t do that unless they were on their way to vacation. So that is one thing. Then there are certain things that authorities and airlines should do. First of all, in Norway, if you go to a restaurant or a bar, usually they don´t serve alcohol before ten in the morning. So I think a stricter policy at the airports would at least do some help, by not having people sit at the airport early in the morning and drinking alcohol.

Another thing is that airlines, especially the low-cost airlines, actually say that you have to be at the airport 2 hours ahead of the flight. In most cases, people show up like that, and they are stuck there with nothing to do for an hour or more before the boarding starts. So when they have nothing to do, sometimes people say that „OK, let´s have a beer“. That’s one aspect of it.

You drew a comparison with „This is a non-smoking flight“ announcement and whether we will ever see that there will also be non-drinking flights. I don´t know. I don´t really know the degree of the problem. I think that a family going on vacation should not be bothered with people around them drinking alcohol and behaving badly. To ban alcohol in total in a flight, I think that would be something that airlines don´t want because they would probably put a lot of our passengers to other airlines that don´t have the same policy. So if that were the reality, it would have to be done at the international level. But then again, I could be wrong, because we had the same discussion 20 years ago when airlines were introducing a ban for smoking, and it was kind of scary because the airlines thought what will be the result if people will choose those airlines where they actually can smoke. But within a few years, it was a common practice. I think Air Canada was one of the last ones and they banned smoking four or five years after the first ban came out.

Certain mechanisms can be used that can reduce alcohol consumption both at the airports and on the flights itself. I would think that first of all, it requires stricter policies at the airport because I think that most of the bars and restaurants at the airports don´t look at their customers as people who will board the flight soon. They are looking at them as they are at their premises and whatever they are doing afterwards is not their problem.

A drunk passenger is a danger to the whole flight and obviously a significant risk for the flight crew. Do you see that flight attendants are equipped enough, also having enough legal support to intervene? Are they also trained enough to deal with these issues?

IMG_7985Yes, they absolutely are. They are trained to deal with those who have consumed too much alcohol or with somebody who just has a bad day and wants to take their anger out on the personnel working on the airline. It´s pretty much the same thing, you follow the instructions given by the flight attendants, you do as you are told. You are obligated to follow these instructions. Somebody who does not follow them, there is no tolerance for that in these airlines that I know, definitely in Scandinavia, but I think the same all around the world. If somebody says I won’t put on my seatbelt, well you are not going on this flight. Period. And if the flight is already airborne and somebody doesn´t do as they are told, you will be reported to the captain.

As far how are they equipped, well, we don´t want it to be anything else besides how they communicate. There aren´t that many things that the passenger has to do, except for putting on the seatbelt, etc. and if somebody doesn´t want to do that, well, they will be reported. That´s how simple it is. You either follow the instructions, or you take the consequences, which are not daily, but I would say weekly. You have people who try to disconnect the smoke detector in the toilets and so forth. And if you are caught, you will have to know that you are running a high risk of paying for that. If a flight has to be diverted, that could easily cost up to 10 or 15 000 dollars.

A recent incident with Norwegian showed that there seems to be quite a lot of confusion. The intervention of the Danish Police, or a lack of intervention, shows that enforcement agencies don´t have a clear position on how to deal with it. Is it a topic where there seem still to be a confusion of some sort?

Yes, there is. It was a Norwegian registered aircraft, and they were in Swedish airspace, and it was near Copenhagen when the captain got the report that cabinet attendants were threatened by not one but several individuals, that kind of behaving as a group and not as individuals. That in itself is very close to a situation that is a threat to flight safety. What happened in Denmark, is really-really strange that police didn´t take them into custody, they just took their names, addresses and then let them walk. I think there needs to be common law, rules, regulations on how to deal with passengers that are causing a diverted flight. What kind of signal would be sent to employees if airlines wouldn´t back them if something like that happens? It is very important that the staff working onboard knows that whatever action you need to take, you have the support of the company.

Diverted landing seems to be the most robust decision a pilot can make. Could you explain how the captain makes that decision?

With my background, I have been flying for 36 years now, I have had much of my career in Widerøe and SAS, it usually would be the chief flight attendant, who has a communication with the cockpit and she/he says that “captain, we have a situation where passengers feel threatened, and a person does not follow instructions”, then the captain makes a decision – fine, we will divert to closest airport, and that´s it. You can´t have a situation where you have your colleagues working behind the door, after 9/11 we are not allowed to leave the cockpit, so we have to trust the decision of the flight attendants, and if they say we feel threatened, we are not safe, it could be a serious situation, I would have no doubt what so ever to divert to the closest airport. I would call in, report to the air traffic controllers and inform them that we have a situation onboard and that I would like to have police meet us at landing to take over these persons.

Do pilots feel that airlines are fully behind them to support such a drastic decision? Because it is really costly, right?

Yes, the airlines are definitely behind us in these situations and the cost, if you look at the court systems around in Europe, they will take these people to court and make them cover these costs as they have threatened flight safety. In the US you could go to jail for years for that.

These are the most severe cases which end up in newspapers and the official data. But isn´t that just a tip of the iceberg? Incidents, where the situation is not critical, and nobody is threatened, but people are disturbed by someone’s drunk behaviour, are very common. How could we change that without banning alcohol from flights (and airports?) altogether?

Yes, it is a disturbance and I would think that you are right that this just might be a tip of the iceberg. Normally, when you reach your destination, cabinet members write a report and that will go to the company and company can deal with that internally but with many cases and with many airlines these reports are also sent to the national civil aviation administration in your country and it will be in the statistics. But, how other airlines practice it, I don´t know.

Another thing is also what we have seen from media when somebody gets unruly, everybody pretty much knows about what happened on 9/11 and usually what we tell our flight attendants if something like that should happen, look and see if there are passengers who can help you out. We do have equipment onboard, I can´t go into details on what we do have, but it definitely means strapping people into their seats, and that´s where they gonna be, strapped to their seats until landing. So, I think getting passengers attention and asking for help is something that has been done and will also be done in the future because nobody wants to have a situation where things get out of control.

You mentioned in the beginning that it is difficult to predict where the regulation will end up but do you agree that it is a growing topic, that the media is raising it more and more and it seems that there must be some important decisions coming up shortly?

I hope so. To me, it seems that politicians don´t really want to deal with this because its complicated, airlines are not sure how to deal with this, so they are just waiting that somebody would take action. There are a lot of authorities, airlines, staff working who are aware of it but they are just waiting that somebody would make some kind of action. So, yes, I definitely think it is a problem.

Flying is so cheap today that it doesn´t cost anything, which means you get a lot of people that normally, going 15 or 20 years back in time, didn´t go on a flight but now they can do it. They are doing it lacking something else to do. And alcohol is cheap and also at a lot of the airports you can buy tax-free before you depart and I think there are a lot of problems with people who are drinking from their duty-free bag to avoid paying for drinks that the airlines charge heavily for. So there are a lot of issues and a lot of things that can be done. Who will do it, when they will do it, I don´t know.

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The Government of the Balearic Islands, the European Institute of Studies on Prevention and the European Alcohol Policy Alliance are organizing An Open Debate: Rethinking your Trip International Summit on 13 February in Palma, Mallorca. Register HERE

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