As we enter holiday season, we were recently asked by a representative body of a number of UK airlines whether it is a criminal offence for an outlet 'airside' at an airport to serve alcohol to someone they know or suspect to be drunk.  

Airlines are of course the ones who most often have to deal with the wrong end of what might be termed a liberal approach to pre (or post) holiday drinking in the departure lounge.

Serving alcohol to someone who is drunk is an offence under the Licensing Act 2003. However, it does not apply to 'airside' premises.  In other words, to the area beyond security.

There are a number of specific 'airside' offences relating to drunkenness and disorderly conduct, but those centre almost entirely on the drunken or disorderly individuals themselves. 

There is nothing that places criminal liability on the 'airside' retailer of the alcohol for serving a passenger who is  worse for wear.  

Civil liability might well apply if they acted truly recklessly or negligently, but that would have to be pretty extreme, and is in reality just not applicable. 

There are some targeted initiatives and practices, notably the UK Aviation Industry Code of Practice on Disruptive Passengers, which expressly prohibits the sale of alcohol to persons who are believed to be intoxicated.  That can only help, and no doubt responsible retailers already abide by it.  It is however still voluntary, and just a Code.

We have previously commented on the possible extension of the Licensing Act to cover 'airside' premises: 

The Government has also consulted on the subject, the outcome of which is currently awaited.

When it comes to passengers who are or are suspected of being drunk best practice is for 'airside' retailers to take the same approach as their non-airside counterparts: refuse to serve them.  But for now a full blooded legal sanction for failing to follow that rule is not in place.