Last call: It’s time for airlines to limit in-flight alcohol sales
Humor me. Have a look at some of these aviation headlines from 2018 and tell me if you can find a common denominator.
“Drunk woman giving lap dances allegedly sparks mass brawl on flight.”
“Drunk man arrested for urinating on passenger.”
“Boozy passenger brawls on flight after he’s cut off.”
“Three boozy lap dancers brawl at 30,000 feet.”
“Drunk passenger’s rampage forced flight to land.”
The latest intoxicating disruption came earlier this month on a flight from Phoenix to Boston when a boozy bro decided to turn a plane into a gym and began performing pull-ups on the overhead bin. He refused to stop, became violent, and the flight was diverted to Kansas City so the man could be ejected from the plane.
Every week a new viral video or horror story arrives courtesy of a passenger who gets crazy drunk (that’s “crunk” in the parlance of those under 30) and makes a mess of what should be a simple trip.
Common sense would dictate that the motivating factor — in this case alcohol — be removed from flights. If airlines stopped serving alcohol, the number of fights and inappropriate acts would drop off dramatically. According the International Air Transit Association, which represents 280 airlines around the world, 9,837 passenger disruptions were reported in 2016, which was the last time numbers were released. A third of those disruptions were a result of alcohol abuse.
“Since it is a voluntary reporting system, we think it may actually understate the number of such incidents,” said Perry Flint, a spokesman for the organization.
Although airlines are beset by drunk, brawling passengers who grope and urinate in a lot of places they shouldn’t, it’s unlikely they’ll ever take booze off the menu because it’s a cash cow. It also means they’re unlikely to put standards in place to limit the number of drinks served per passenger on a flight.
It wasn’t always this way. Up until the late 1980s, most airlines had a two-drink limit per passenger, per flight, according to airline industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of Atmospheric Research Group. Perhaps that, and the lack of cellphones, is why we never witnessed the frequency and nastiness of brawls during the golden age of aviation.
I’m about to become the most unpopular travel writer in Boston by suggesting this, but it’s time that airlines reinstate a two-drink limit per passenger. Not only will it make flights safer and more comfortable, it will also save hundreds of thousands of dollars in re-routed planes each year. It would also mean fewer dudes yelling on flights to Las Vegas.
“I like the idea of a two-drink limit for passengers,” said flight attendant and blogger Joe Thomas. “People on airplanes follow rules — well, most of them do. The rules are in place because something bad once happened and they became necessary. Smoking is prohibited because an Air Canada plane burst into flames when someone threw their cigarette into the lavatory. I think we’ve seen plenty of times that too much alcohol has led to bad things. It’s a rule that makes sense.”
But a two-drink limit would likely never fly at the corporate level because it would cut into the bottom line.
The onboard technology company GuestLogix found that passengers spend more on alcohol than food or any other in-flight purchases.
The five major airlines brought in $43 million in alcohol sales over a four-month period during 2013 and 2014, which is the last time the numbers were released (airlines are not required to share revenue from alcohol sales). That means airlines could pull in $130 million annually from alcohol sales. In the years since the GuestLogix study, airlines have upped the prices on many drinks. Given the disruptive behavior still flooding the news, those higher prices don’t appear to have deterred passengers from overindulging.
Still, many frequent fliers said they couldn’t fathom making it through a flight without their calming cocktails, even if it means dealing with belligerent drunkards.
“For me it’s a tradition,” said Cambridge-based medical sales representative Ann De Silva, who estimates she’s in the air about 10 times a month. “I get on, relax, have a gin and tonic, and then watch a movie.”
“I walk onto the plane and I’m handed a glass of champagne,” said investment banker and frequent flier David Waxman. “I don’t think that should stop because there are a few people who cause problems.”
Eliminating or reducing alcohol consumption on planes would minimize the number of incidents, however it’s unlikely to eliminate them altogether. Airport bars and lounges are where many begin their journey with the devil’s nectar. Passengers arrive early to clear security, and then wait for flights, sometimes with long delays. By the time they board, they could easily be stewed.
In the United Kingdom, Ryanair requested that airports stop serving alcohol before 10 a.m. and that airport bars and restaurants begin enforcing a two-drink-per-passenger policy following several incidents of partiers boarding flights already drunk this summer. Ryanair doesn’t sell alcohol on its European flights so the passengers became lit waiting for their plane.
In July, airports and airlines in the UK introduced the “One too many” campaign, reminding passengers that drunken behavior on planes could result in prison time and tens of thousands of pounds in fines.
There hasn’t been a similar campaign among US airports. With no regulations or rules about alcohol limits in place — aside from asking passengers not to get drunk and violent — gate agents and flight attendants are the ones who are generally left to police passenger behavior and alcohol consumption in the air.
“We do our best to spot them before the flight takes off, but sometimes you can’t always tell,” said Thomas. “I’ve had people taken off the flight and I’ve had someone arrested after they were belligerent and verbally abusive for the entire flight.”
The Transportation Security Administration is not charged with determining if someone is drunk, only what they bring on a plane. The responsibility therefore falls upon the gate agent and flight attendants.
“It’s not the TSA’s responsibility to screen for sobriety,” Harteveldt said. “If a gate agent suspects that a passenger is inebriated, they generally have the right to stop the customer and make sure they don’t get on a plane, but gate agents often don’t want to get into an argument with a passenger and they don’t want to be making a decision that could be considered arbitrary and lead to anything from a simple disagreement to a lawsuit.”
The Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing workers on more than 20 airlines, does not have official guidelines for alcohol service, those are set by airlines, but spokeswoman Taylor Garland offered an important piece of advice for thirsty travelers.
“The call button is not the drink service button,” Garland said. “Wait for the cart to come through the cabin and order a drink if you’d like one. That’s a good way to pace yourself.”