WHEN trouble broke out, most of the passengers buried their noses in newspapers and phones, hoping that, like turbulence, it would quickly pass. The arguing Galashiels couple, who were slurring insults at each other, seemed headed for a less than idyllic break in the United States. When they requested yet another drink from the trolley, the steward firmly refused. Undaunted, the husband reached into the overhead locker and brought out a bottle of vodka he’d been keeping for just such an emergency. Soon he and his wife were yelling at each other, but it was only when the bloke grabbed his wife’s passport and began to rip it up, during which she was walloping him over the head, that my husband and other passengers finally intervened. The pair were separated, and when the flight touched down, were led away in handcuffs by the police.

There was a time when such scenes were rare. Now, according to figures from the British airline industry, the number of passengers arrested for drunken behaviour has gone up by 50 per cent in the past year, from 255 to 387. Of 4,000 cabin crew surveyed, one in five have been assaulted and over half have experienced or witnessed verbal, sexual or physical harassment, including head-butting, groping, and lewd suggestions. No wonder that behind their polished smiles there is a steely light in the crew’s eyes as they greet you, assessing who is most likely to cause problems in the hours ahead.

It shouldn’t be that hard to tell. The peaceable tend to walk in a straight line, the unruly arriving after final-final calls for boarding in a miasma of spiritous fumes, and finding the mechanics of the seat belt as complicated to fathom as the instrument panel of a Boeing 737. Others to watch are those in business and first class who summon the first of endless free drinks as soon as they’re seated as they attempt to wring every penny worth from their pricey ticket.

As anti-social incidents escalate, some fear it will take a serious accident – a grievous assault or opened cabin door or breach of the cockpit – before the authorities are obliged to end the idiotic, incomprehensible laws around the sale of drink in airports and planes. Anyone who has taken a flight at dawn will have seen airport bars already doing a brisk trade. Where most can’t even face muesli at that hour, diehard tipplers are hitting lager and wine. In order to reach the departure gate you have to file through duty-free, past the shelves of spirit bottles temptingly placed within reach. Although notices inform customers that drink bought here must not be consumed on board, this restriction is routinely ignored – as the sellers must surely know, since why else sell pocket-sized bottles? As a double precaution, though, those who fear the inflight trolley running dry fill up before boarding, sloshing their way up the plane steps like human beer kegs and jeroboams.

The prospect of inebriated passengers in a confined space with no exit, 35,000 feet in the air, is baffling as well as worrying. That decently behaved travellers, some with children, should find themselves trapped for hours in the company of volatile and occasionally dangerous louts is not simply bad luck. It is a direct result of licensing laws that allow airports to bypass normal regulation, and sell drink 24/7. Like giving a box of matches to a toddler, it is a recipe for disaster.

Since self-regulation has proved worse than useless, there are now calls for airport alcohol sales to be regulated, and for airlines to restrict access to drink onboard. Both measures, of course, will significantly erode income for a sector that, unbelievable though it sounds, depends heavily on bar-flies for profits. It is no coincidence that the advent of dirt-cheap flights has gone hand in hand with the rise of aggressive, drink-related disorder. This, despite the fact that drunks pose a threat to themselves, to other passengers and ultimately to the entire flight.

Obviously, one hopes that new standards will swiftly be set in place to prevent overconsumption before boarding – Ryanair sensibly suggests a two-drink limit – and a stricter approach to what is available in the air. The heart of the problem, however, lies deeper. Libertarian airport and airline policies are merely enabling an already unhealthy culture to flourish. For some the words holiday or hen and stag party signal the starting gun for hitting the sauce. The otherworldly environs of an airport and the metal tube in which they shuttle through the sky clearly add to the sense that normal rules don’t apply here. Until problem drinking ends, however – and that won’t be in our lifetimes – it is the responsibility of the authorities urgently to put rules in place for the safety of all. Planes have no option but to abide by the rules of physics. Boorish booze-fuelled behaviour should be made subject to laws of equal gravity.