We need to get serious on airport drinking

The thorny issue of airport drinking has once again hit the UK headlines at a particularly bad time for travel retail.

A BBC Panorama TV documentary reported that 18 out of 20 UK police forces with responsibility for major airports had recently experienced a surge in arrests for drunken behaviour at British airports or onboard UK-bound or originating flights.

It’s worth noting that the number of offenders is still comparatively small – 387 passengers were arrested for drunken behaviour in the 12 months to February this year, up from 255 the previous year. According to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, more than 270m people flew from a UK airport in 2016, so we’re talking about a few bad eggs here (although that statistic is still scant consolation if you’re stuck next to some drunk idiot on your long-haul flight).

The problem is also clearly getting worse. Between 2012 and 2016 there was a 600% increase in disruptive passenger incidents in the UK, most of them involving alcohol, according to the CAA. Ryanair, Europe’s largest low-cost airline, has been forced to ban passengers flying from Glasgow Prestwick and Manchester airports to Alicante and Ibiza from taking duty free liquor on their flights. Anyone buying duty free on these services must either stow bottles in the hold or leave them at the airport.

Following the documentary, Ryanair called on airports to take on more responsibility by banning the sale of alcohol at bars and restaurants before 10am, introducing mandatory use of boarding cards when buying alcohol at the airport, and limiting the number of drinks allowed.

“It’s unfair that airports can profit from unlimited sale of alcohol tand leave the airlines to deal with the safety consequences,” says Ryanair chief marketing officer Kenny Jacobs. “We are calling for significant changes to prohibit the sale of alcohol at airports, particularly with early morning flights and when flights are delayed.”

In response to media coverage, the UK Travel Retail Forum, the Airport Operators Association and Airlines UK put out a joint statement. “The industry is working hard to tackle the issue and last year launched a code of practice to create a common, consistent approach that coordinates and enhances existing efforts to prevent disruptive passenger behaviour,” it said. “Government supports the code and together we believe this is the best way to tackle this issue.”

Within travel retail, I do think the role of miniatures in the sales mix might have to be re-evaluated. I have been amazed at the way the selection has grown both in terms of size and diversity. The days when the 5cl miniature was the preserve of standard spirits brands are long gone.

For suppliers and retailers, miniatures are an ideal way to squeeze incremental spend from passengers without going over their personal duty free allowance. The question is how many of these miniatures are being consumed on passengers’ flights rather than at their destination?

The topic of airport and airline drunkenness has become an easy story for the media when the news cycle is slow. Unfortunately, the negative image these stories create around travel retail is doing it lasting damage at a time when it needs to present the best face possible to the public and regulatory authorities in the run up to Brexit in 2019.