At the airport it’s always five o’clock

Every time I take an early morning flight from a UK airport in the peak summer travel period it’s always the same

As I make my way through the crowded departure lounge and hear the sound of laughter and the clink of glasses I’m reminded of the chorus of that old Jimmy Buffett country-and-western song, It’s Five O’clock Somewhere:

Pour me something tall and strong.

Make it a hurricane, before I go insane.

It’s only half past twelve, but I don’t care,

It’s five o’clock somewhere.

No matter what the clock says the airport’s bars, restaurants and pubs are invariably doing a roaring trade. Bleary-eyed travellers are determined to get into the holiday spirit as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, over in the airline business lounges, the free champagne continues to flow, making the prospect of that midday meeting in Düsseldorf just a little bit more bearable.

I daresay most of these passengers would probably never dream of sipping a glass of prosecco or downing a pint of lager at 6.30 in the morning ordinarily. Yet there’s something about crossing into that windowless, timeless airside world that clearly creates a what-the-heck mindset. The normal rules don’t seem to apply.

Now I’ve never given too much thought to this early morning happy hour phenomenon except to think it must be damn good business for the airports and bar owners. Yet a number of stories in the papers suggest there might be a darker side to it. A recent survey of British holidaymakers carried out by online travel agent found that as many as 62% of travellers headed for the bar as soon as they cleared security.

A worrying 28% admitted that they had had “one too many” before getting on their flight and 12% knew of someone who’d been stopped from boarding for being too drunk. Nearly three quarters of those surveyed claimed they would never normally drink in the morning, but thought it OK to start their holiday with a drink, regardless of the time.

The issue has got so bad at London Gatwick that for the past two years during the summer season the airport has teamed up with the local Sussex police to mount regular patrols of the airport’s bars, looking out for potential troublemakers. Last year some 80 worse-for-wear passengers were stopped from boarding their flights and 26 individuals were arrested.

Now the problem does have to be put into perspective – Gatwick handled more than 40m passengers in 2015 so we’re talking about a tiny handful of offenders. Nonetheless, every case of drunken air rage that makes the headlines puts extra scrutiny on airlines and airports’ attitudes to alcohol. Every area of the on-trade has to been seen to be promoting a responsible drinking message and the airport sector is no different.

Of course, some holidaymakers are always going to take things too far whereas, for others, I believe the growing stress of travel and clearing security play a big part in their need to hit the booze a little too hard. Some 91% of those surveyed said they found the whole pre-travel experience stressful with packing (65%), avoiding excess baggage charges (56%) and long check-in and security queues (46%) the main trigger points.

Anything airports and airlines can do to make travel a little bit more of a pleasant experience will go some way to alleviating what is a growing problem.