Last Call at the Airport? Britain Considers End to 24-Hour Bar Service

LUTON, England — It was 5:50 on a Friday morning, and most of the people at a Starbucks in the middle of a shopping concourse at Luton Airport, north of London, looked slightly miserable, as if they preferred to be somewhere else.

A man in a green hoodie sat with his chin propped on his hand, staring at a departure board. A young couple next to him looked at their phones, ignoring each other. There was little conversation, and no laughter.

A few feet away, though, at the Smithfield Pub (“Est. 2017”), which was designed to look like a wood cabin, the mood was more festive.

A couple were drinking strawberry-flavored cider to celebrate the start of a romantic trip to Paris. A woman was ordering gin and tonics and pints of Guinness for her friends, while swaying to music at the bar. Two men heading to Alicante, Spain, for a cricket tour were laughing while drinking lager.

“We’re wearing yellow chinos; we need this to feel better,” said Joylon Bryce, one of the men.

For many, early drinking is a tradition at Britain’s airports, but it could soon become a thing of the past. On Thursday, the British government announced that it would review airport licensing rules in England and Wales after complaints from budget airlines like Ryanair, easyJet and about drunk and disorderly passengers.

At London Stansted Airport this summer, for example, a groom dressed as the Disney character Tinker Bell was accused of threatening other passengers on a Ryanair flight to Krakow, Poland, delaying the plane. He had to be escorted off.

Such antics are a menace, causing stress, spurring physical altercations and, the airlines said, causing flights to be delayed or diverted. Ryanair said in a statement last year, “It’s completely unfair that airports can profit from the unlimited sale of alcohol to passengers and leave the airlines to deal with the safety consequences.”

Outside of airports, most local authorities limit the number of places that can sell alcohol around the clock, and the usual closing time for bars and pubs is between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. But bars at international airports are exempt from Britain’s licensing rules; one can generally get a drink at any hour.

The Home Office is seeking public comments on whether the stricter licensing rules should apply to airports, too. The government has suggested banning alcohol sales at airport pubs from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m.

British newspapers expressed shock at the news. “Departy’s over: Brit holidaymakers could be BANNED from 24-hour boozing at U.K. airports,” said The Sun.

Twitter quickly filled with jokes, with one person lamenting, “It’s over, lads.”

The government’s examination follows a 2017 recommendation from a committee in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the British Parliament, to lift the licensing exemption because of a growth in booze-fueled disorder. told the committee that it had handled 536 incidents in summer 2016 alone, more than half of which involved alcohol. Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority received more than 400 reports of disruptive passengers last year, up from fewer than 100 in 2013. A majority of those involved drunken passengers, the authority said in an email on Friday.

Those opposed to any change — the alcohol industry and bars at airports, for example — note that the number of reported disorderly passengers was tiny compared with the more than 280 million passengers who used British airports last year.

The debate is reminiscent of the one that occurred when Britain exempted airports from licensing laws in the 1950s. Harold Watkinson, the transport secretary at the time, argued that the change was essential to attract tourists.

“One may forgive them if they do not always understand why it is that they cannot always obtain a drink,” he said in 1956. “Almost every other international airport gives a 24-hour service.”

Britain, proponents said, had to match the availability of alcohol to compete.

But even back then, others saw a huge downside. A traveler who has a meal and an alcoholic beverage at the airport “goes onto a plane perfectly sober and is so for perhaps an hour afterwards,” Somerville Hastings, a Labour Party lawmaker, said in a debate in 1956. “But later, he develops the symptoms of intoxication and becomes a nuisance.”

Being drunk on a flight is illegal in Britain, and endangering the safety of an aircraft is punishable by up to five years in jail.

At the Smithfield Pub at Luton, meanwhile, there was little appetite for changing the law to ban morning drinking. “Surely it’s a bigger problem at night?” said Inese Grinberga, 27, who was heading home to Latvia after traveling the world. “Why stop it in the morning?”

Ms. Grinberga was sharing a beer with a friend. They had decided to drink, she said, after walking past the pub and joking about “all the crazy people with pints at 7 a.m.”

Timmi Clark, 27, echoed the opposition. She was drinking a rose-petal covered gin and tonic while wearing a tiara to kick-start her bridal shower party in Bratislava, Slovakia.

“It’s my hen party, so I’m celebrating,” she said. “But it’s like tradition: You’re on holiday; you have a drink. Why stop that?”

Another person consuming alcohol, Sam Pugh, who was on his way to Athens for a 30th birthday bash, was halfway through a pint of lager. He said that preventing morning drinking would not stop travelers from getting drunk on planes, since passengers can buy booze on the flights.

The government should be tackling another problem, Mr. Pugh said. “I know you can be banned from getting on a plane for being drunk,” he said, “but you can’t for being an idiot. It might be better if they banned idiots.”

Brian Malloy, 27, who was headed to Bulgaria for his bachelor party, was sitting on the pub’s floor, throwing up into a plastic bag. He had too much to drink the night before, said Sean Hammon, Mr. Malloy’s future brother-in-law. He did not appear to spoil anyone else’s mood, however, even the families eating breakfast nearby.

The bachelor party also did not see the merits of changing the law to curb early drinking.

“It makes no sense,” Mr. Hammon said. “You can only fit in one drink before you get on a plane and you can buy drinks on there.”

He added, “They don’t let you on drunk, anyway.”

Mr. Malloy himself had no comment. But he did manage a thumbs up when asked if he was O.K.

Follow Alex Marshall and Palko Karasz on Twitter: @alexmarshall81 and @karaszpalko.

Alex Marshall reported from Luton, and Palko Karasz from London.

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