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Will Airlines Ever Really Ban Booze?

On April 1st, 2019, long before booze-fueled COVID-19 mask defiance, I wrote, “Drunk and out-of-control passengers are becoming a real problem, groping and assaulting flight attendants, fighting other passengers and air marshals, attempting to open the aircraft door mid-flight and attempting to get into the cockpit.” The April Fool’s Day-dated story’s title? “Should Airlines Consider Banning Alcohol On Aircraft?”

Since then, the situation has not improved. Passengers freed from COVID-19 ‘house arrest’ have run amuck. One woman literally knocked out the teeth of a Southwest flight attendant. Since February, U.S. airlines have referred more than 1,300 unruly-passenger reports to the Federal Aviation Agency. Passengers have been restrained onboard, planes have turned around, police or FBI have arrested or interrogated passengers. Delta has threatened banishment from SkyMiles. The Washington Post primly proposed a ban on alcohol, despite 70 years of serving adult beverages, onbard?

Two years ago, it was an April Fool’s joke, as

  • Onboard alcohol is a precious perk of flying First or Business Class—which pays the bills for most airlines.
  • Booze can be both a pacifier and a profit source in Economy; that $7 on-board beer might cost the airline a dollar. 
  • Drinking (in moderation) may help passengers get through today’s flying conditions.

But bad behavior has recently driven Southwest and American to temporary curtail (not “ban”) alcohol sales. Southwest, like other US airlines, suspended all onboard service in the early days of the pandemic. Social distancing and limiting contact between flight attendants and passengers was the idea. Temporarily ending in-flight service may have helped—airlines are believed to not be major COVID vectors.

Southwest has slowly returned to serving passengers snacks and drinks. However, “following an uptick of incidents inflight and industry-wide involving disruptive passengers, we paused previously announced plans to resume onboard alcohol service.” Southwest does not currently have a timeline for “full restoration of pre-pandemic onboard service,” i.e., alcohol.

Such incidents, as Henry H. Harteveldt, President/Travel Industry Analyst at the Atmosphere Research Group, puts it, are “why we can’t have nice things.”

At American, a memo to flight crews said, “We recognize that alcohol can contribute to atypical behavior from customers onboard and we owe it to our crew not to potentially exacerbate what can already be a new and stressful situation for our customers…American suspended alcohol sales in the Main Cabin in late March 2020, and that service will remain suspended through Sept.13.”

Not coincidentally, September 13 is the date the FAA has said the airline mask mandate will end. Unfortunately, as many states have already dropped mask mandates, that may entail a long hot summer onboard the airlines.

American’s limitation of alcohol service may be more controversial than that of Southwest, where no customer will be served alcohol until the ‘pause’ ends. But on American, Premium cabin customers can get “a free drink at the pointy end of the plane,” as Harteveldt puts it.

Unfortunately, this feeds into current concerns about “social inequality.” A Bloomberg opinion piece claims that “air rage” is not “about alcohol or shrinking legroom,” but is actually caused by class warfare. The story says a 2016 academic study found that the “presence of a first-class section made it 3.84 times more likely that someone in economy class would act out.”

“We’ve all been in the cave too long, and when you come out it’s Lord of the Flies,” says Bryan Del Monte, President of The Aviation Agency. Flying over the last year, senior flight attendants told him, “We’re trying to reduce people getting boozed up and upset over the mask requirement.”

His modest proposal to limit alcohol-fueled incidents: cut beverage service. “Catering is a large cost that airlines really hate. With less catering, it is a simple way to increase revenue per flight.”

Del Monte says service standards are already low. “Passengers say ‘Oh my G-d I got a whole can of soda.’” He notes that smoking is long gone, and the airlines have banned emotional security animals, so alcohol might go too.

“The airlines are looking for ways to pull cost out of the supply chain. On domestic flights, you could remove alcohol and cite passenger safety. It’s like the COVID-19 school year; clearly Zoom school is not the same as in-person instruction, but I didn’t see many colleges giving refunds. Airline have used this strategy for years, providing service where you get less and less for the same price.”

Although some carriers (such as Emirates internationally and JetBlue and Alaska domestically) try to differentiate themselves based on food and beverage offerings, airline food remains a staple of jokes and costs are key. Harteveldt says, “Jet Blue switched from Coke to Pepsi because Coke was too expensive.”

Whether alcohol service is a passenger amenity or a profit center is less clear. If a case of Corona beer sells for $24 and an airline sells a bottle for $6, it might seem a 500% profit. But most food and alcohol to the airlines is provided by catering companies. A September 2020 study found that “the global market for In-Flight Catering Services is projected to reach US$22.4 billion by 2025, driven by the rise in air passenger traffic and the resulting increase in demand for airline food.” The study claimed the increasing popularity of gourmet food catering” is a “competitive strategy for service differentiation among airline companies.”

While alcohol might not be quite as important to airlines as kerosene, there may be gold at the bottom of the bottle. MEL Magazine interviewed Ajai Ammachathram, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska’s School of Nutrition and Health Sciences. He estimated gross profit on alcohol sales at more than 50 percent, citing the captive audience. “I compare selling booze on a flight to popcorn and candy in a movie theater. The thing about the movie theater is that you go there to relax, but I don’t think anybody will say that about the flying experience.” 

Airline analyst Helane Becker of Cowen says, “I have never seen revenue numbers for this segment. I suspect there is a profit there, but I’m not sure.” Would passengers accept an alcohol ban? She says, “If people persist in drinking and acting out, maybe not having alcohol available is the solution. It is unacceptable that anyone would think of hitting a flight attendant on board an aircraft.”

But would ending service motivate passengers to smuggle booze on board, either in their carry-ons or bloodstream? Flight attendants are taught to watch for signs of inebriation onboard. At the gate, if a passenger appears intoxicated, they can be denied boarding.

“Flight attendants get plenty of training in how to handle unruly passengers, but they don’t want confrontations. If they smell alcohol, they may suggest coffee. Or add a little more ice or water to dilute the drink. Or less liquor,” says Harteveldt. “An airplane is not a flying bar. It is a shared conveyance. And rule number one for that airplane is safety.”

Nonetheless, he says, “If airline A says no alcohol for anybody, Airline B says we still got booze.”

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