woman speaking in plane with caption 'AA what y'all doing about this' (l) airplane passenger holding glass of champagne up to plane window (r)

Yusei/Shutterstock @knuckelslawncare/TikTok (Licensed) Remix by Caterina Cox

Why is everyone getting thrown off airplanes for being too drunk?

These viral incidents show the consequences of imbibing in the sky.

 

Tricia Crimmins

IRL

Airplanes can seem like the Wild West at times: Unruly passengers, crying babies, turbulence, and everyone is packed into tiny seats next to each other.

Add alcohol to the equation, and things get even more complicated—especially when a passenger getting too drunk on an airplane could face legal repercussions on the ground.

But the potential consequences of getting too drunk on an airplane go beyond rules and regulations. Keep reading to learn about the history of alcohol on planes, some viral in-flight incidents, and why passengers choose to drink in the air.

History of airplanes serving alcohol

The first commercial airline was St. Petersburg–Tampa Airboat Line started in 1914. However, commercial airlines didn’t begin serving alcohol in-flight until the 1940s, once the Prohibition-era teetotaler frenzy had died down.

After that, boozing in the sky boomed. Considered the “Golden Era of Flying,” it was customary for passengers (of age) to drink wine and cocktails while in flight during the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. According to the Telegraph, sometimes the flow of drinks was even “unending.” And in the 1980s and ‘90s, alcohol came free like pretzels do on flights for all passengers. You could smoke on planes, too.

With the exception of a pause in drink services during the pandemic due to mask mandates, drinking in-flight has remained the same since the turn of the century. There still isn’t a limit on how many drinks a passenger can consume, though coach passengers now pay for beverages. 

Some flight attendants wish there was, though. Last year, airlines resumed serving alcohol in-flight after mask mandates were lifted in many states, which brought back the potential for intoxicated, belligerent passengers. The American Airlines flight attendant union asked that a two-drink limit be imposed on flights, as “part of an ongoing effort to curb unruly and violent passenger incidents.”

And sometimes such incidents aren’t even fueled by alcohol served by airlines: Since the pandemic, many airlines have reminded passengers that if they brought their own alcohol onto the flight, they’re not allowed to drink it on the plane.

Recent incidents of passengers drunk on an airplane

The majority of passengers have no problem imbibing on a flight. They’re able to have an alcoholic drink or two during their trip while following the rules and etiquette of air travel.

But some airplane passengers, when allowed alcohol, escalate to a state of drunkenness and then become unruly and even violent. The last few months have seen a lot of people thrown off planes for intoxication. 

In June, a woman was escorted off a Southwest Airlines plane in handcuffs for being belligerently drunk, seemingly before the plane even took off. And in July, a Southwest flight attendant had to kick a drunk couple off a flight for “jeopardizing the safety” of the aircraft.

A flight attendant even shared her trick for serving customers who don’t know “when to stop” drinking: a cup of juice with only a splash of alcohol, rather than a full shot.

And sometimes, a lack of alcohol is the issue, too. After having only one drink, an Alaska Airlines passenger was mysteriously kicked off a flight in April; in July, a United Airlines flight had to land after a woman freaked out over not being served wine.

Is it illegal to be drunk on an airplane?

It’s not expressly illegal to be drunk on an airplane, but travelers should still be aware of the issues that overindulgence can cause.

Ultimately, it’s up to gate agents and flight crew to decide if a passenger is drunk enough to be kicked off. That’s because Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations state that airline employees may not “allow any person to board any of its aircraft if that person appears to be intoxicated.” The key word here is “appears.” 

The FAA clarifies its rules regarding alcohol in a blog post from 2021. “If you have one too many in the airport and the flight crew won’t allow you to board, remember they are just obeying federal regulations and keeping the rest of the passengers safe,” the agency explains.

An aviation attorney even told the Washington Post last year that if passengers who seem to be drunk “cause a disturbance,” they could be arrested in the airport for public intoxication.

These guidelines apply to flight crew, too: In 2019, a flight attendant was charged with public intoxication after appearing drunk while on duty.

Why do people drink in the airport and on airplanes?

The meta way of putting it, as explained by the Atlantic’s Rachel Sugar, is that drinking “signals the transition from one set of rules to another.” So while you might not normally drink at 4pm on a Tuesday, waiting to catch a flight for a vacation might merit a cocktail at an airport bar at that time. 

And drinking is a way that many cope with anxiety; for some, flight anxiety is a challenge. Plus, if someone is drinking in-flight, they might get more intoxicated quicker without realizing it. There is a limited amount of food offered on flights, and passengers are sitting down most of the time, which could lead to one not perceiving the effects of alcohol, according to HuffPost.

It’s important to note, also, that the idea that drinking on a plane flying at a high altitude will lead to increased intoxication is a myth. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make an effort to drink safely—remember, you’re still at risk of being thrown off a plane! 

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