On December 10 a SWISS flight from Moscow to Zurich made an unscheduled landing in Stuttgart following a passenger's attack on a flight crew member. After she was denied another glass of champagne, the Swiss business-class passenger erupted, so much so that the pilot landed the aircraft as a precautionary measure. The passenger copped a €5000 ($A7743) fine.
It's far from the first time an aircraft has been forced to land to offload a pickled and aggressive passenger, and although an alcohol-induced aircraft diversion is a rare event, most of us have been the victims of drunk-on-plane syndrome. The end-of-season sports club bash en route to wreak havoc in the bars of Kuta, the schoolies brat pack heading for the Gold Coast, the party of pumped-up 50-something mates drunk and howling like hyenas and up all night. And should you ask them to keep the ruckus down, "Whatsamatta with you, I can enjoy a drink if I feel like it, we're just having a little fun, you a wowser mate?"
It's not that common, at least according to an International Air Transport Association fact sheet on unruly passengers. In 2016 the rate was one incident for every 1424 flights. The majority of those were classed as level one incidents, verbal in nature. Only 12 per cent were level two incidents involving physical aggression or damage to the aircraft. Intoxication from either drugs or alcohol was a factor in one third of all those incidents. Therefore alcohol intoxication contributed to an incident in less than one in 4000 flights.
Really? No way have I been on anything like 4000 flights, yet I could count at least a dozen times when I've been affected by pickled passengers. There was the drunk and brawling couple who were either laughing or fighting the whole way to Singapore, the plastered prankster who thought it hilarious to grab the crew member's backside as she was serving from the meal trolley and the time I flew from Bangkok to Helsinki sandwiched between two supersize Vikings who boarded drunk and stinking and hogged the armrests on either side and then snored and farted through the whole glorious 12 hours.
I'd prefer to believe the figures revealed by a BBC Panorama investigation which claimed 387 air travellers were arrested for drunkenness at UK airports and on flights in the year from February 2016 to February 2017, a rise of 50 per cent on the previous year. If there were 387 who were sufficiently badly behaved to get themselves arrested, that suggests a whole lot more who were just loutish, rude or generally offensive from downing one too many.
Apart from waiting for a new operating system to download, flying is about the dullest experience you can have. You're confined to a seat, you're watching films, you're munching and all those activities suggest alcohol as a natural companion for some. If you're flying on a full-service airline the booze is probably free, so why not?
But what, if any, are the rules around the service of alcohol on aircraft?
Airlines point out that being drunk on an aircraft is illegal in many jurisdictions. In the USA, Federal regulations do not limit the number of drinks that can be served to a passenger. Rather they stipulate that drinks can't be served to anyone who "appears to be intoxicated,". Also forbidden to any passenger who "has a deadly or dangerous weapon accessible while aboard the aircraft," and if you ever believed that the USA was borderline mad, bad and dangerous, I hope you find this message reassuring.
So how do air crew decide who's teetering on the brink of the alcohol precipice?
Some US airlines use their country's National Restaurant Association traffic light system, which places passengers in green, yellow or red categories as determined by their behaviour, from sociable and relaxed to spilling drinks, falling down and unable to sit up straight. At the yellow stage, when a passenger might be talking louder than normal, arguing or spraying obscenities, the guidelines suggest refusal of further service of alcohol to prevent the passenger moving to the red stage.
That's the problem.
By the time they're into the yellow phase, that's probably a code red as far as everyone sitting within earshot is concerned. It isn't until a passenger passes the point of no return and starts to display obnoxious and anti-social behaviour that flight crew might hit the kill switch. That's already too late for those sitting nearby, and a rude, offensive and drunken bonehead can make life hell for anyone sitting within three rows. Unlike the pub, there's no eject option for the offender. Neither is there the possibility for passengers to move to another seat. You're trapped, gritting your teeth and enduring whatever comes out.
Among Australian airlines, as noted in an IATA document entitled "Guidance on Unruly Passenger Prevention and Management, "Some IATA Member airlines require cabin crew to attain Responsible Service of Alcohol (RSA) statements upon hiring (Australia)."
But that's not necessarily what happens in the air.
In mid-2014, on a flight from Sydney to Darwin, the passenger in the seat next to mine requested and was served five airline-size bottles of white wine. That's five bottles of 187ml each, for a total of 935ml, around nine standard drinks. He wasn't disruptive, wasn't unsteady or in any noticeable way affected by alcohol. Judged by his behaviour alone there was no good reason to refuse his request, but that doesn't gel with supposed compliance with RSA provisions.
Which raises the question, even if an airline wants to limit the amount of alcohol they serve, how do they police it? There's no system that alerts flight crew that the passenger in seat 23C has just requested his fourth drink and it's only 2½ hours into an 8-hour flight.
There is also the temptation for flight crew to defer to passengers' requests for more drinks rather than risking a confrontation. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is particularly the case on Asian airlines, where flight crew might be more reluctant to impose rules and refuse service to someone who might be ready to get down in the gutter and shout or even punch. Easier to marinade them in alcohol and hope they'll quietly pass out.
As noted in another IATA document entitled The Devil in our Midst detailing the ever-increasing problem of disruptive passengers "It only takes one unruly passenger to disrupt the travel plans of thousands of people. But dealing with unruly passengers is a tricky business from start to finish."