In one of the more bizarre stories to make the news this week, a flight to Edinburgh was forced to make a diversion after a drunk passenger attacked cabin crew with her prosthetic leg. While this incident had a particularly surreal twist – the 48-year-old woman demanded "cigarettes and a parachute" before advancing on staff with her improvised weapon – intoxicated passengers are not an uncommon occurrence in the skies.
Earlier this month a passenger on a Ryanair flight attempted to open the exit door after mistaking it for the toilet, which was the same excuse used by an Australian passenger in April who caused a hijack scare on a Virgin plane after banging on the cockpit door. And who can forget the time distinguished French actor Gerard Depardieu relieved himself in the aisle after being refused access to the lavatory before take off? Even Kate Moss was spotted looking a little shaky when she boarded a flight to Turkey on Monday. One could be forgiven for thinking that on any given flight, the crew are the only sober people on board.
The issue has not gone unnoticed by the aviation authorities. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), who represent 240 airlines (equivalent to 84% of total air traffic), "unruly passenger incidents" are a "significant daily operational challenge" for their members. Last year the organisation received reports of 8,000 such incidents, with alcohol a high-ranking contributing factor (not being allowed to smoke, and getting annoyed with other passengers are other common causes). This is big jump; in 2011 6,000 incidents were reported, in 2007 just 500.
Airlines, understandably, are keen to play down the issue. British Airways told us they do not discuss matters of safety, but described incidents of this nature as "rare". Ryanair said they had not experienced an increase in such incidents but added that customers who create a disturbance could be refused boarding, or face sanctions on arrival.
Monarch Airlines have taken a notably proactive approach to the issue. Since last year, they have been trialling a program at Gatwick Airport in which staff in pubs and Duty Free are requested not to serve drunk passengers, resulting in a 50% reduction in the number of incidents involving drunk passenger incidents there. Since January, the airline has also been sending out emails to passengers in advance of their flight, warning them of what could happen if they misbehave. Other airports – such as Manchester – are said to be considering taking up a similar scheme.
The idea for the program came from former cabin crew member Jane Goodchild, who became aware of an increase in anti-social behaviour on flights to certain destinations. And according to a spokesperson for the airline, it really is certain destinations. "If I'm being honest, it's our evening flights to Ibiza", they said. "I think people go straight from the flight to the club … and some of them board the plane already a little worse for wear."