Drunks on a Plane.


Drunks on a Plane

By Chris Manno

I’ve been a captain at a major airline for almost 25 years now, and one sad but preventable liability remains unaddressed through all of my thousands of flight hours: drunks on a plane.

When I hear of intoxicated air travelers disrupting a flight, beyond the risk to others aboard, the first thought that comes to my mind is a three-pronged failure by airports, airlines and ultimately, passengers.

The problem is real, and dangerous. Every law enforcement professional will tell you that a domestic or public disturbance is compounded by the involvement of alcohol. Judgement is impaired, self-restraint is diminished and behavior becomes aggressive, often violent.

As in such violent encounters that police are called to manage, the incident itself is basically a flash-fire touched off by an accumulation of stress factors and fueled by alcohol.

And there’s failure number one: if anyone should be aware of the emotional tinderbox that is air travel, it’s airport management who administer the lines, delays, security hassles, baggage problems, diversions, crowding, and even automobile traffic. Yet airports will not give up the cash flow that alcohol sales at the airport supplies.

They witness daily the human pressure cooker of jet lag, sleeplessness, dehydration and uncertain, typically inadequate rest and nourishment that is typical for a passenger mix from time zones far and wide.

That is a total failure of prevention, fueled by equal doses of looking the other way, and a reluctance to give up revenue from alcohol sales at airport bars and restaurants. Airport managers know better, but choose revenue over passenger safety.

Ditto the airlines: they realize that it’s not possible for flight crews and even ground service staff to assess passenger intoxication levels. Typically, crews and agents see enplaning passengers only briefly as they board. Worse, there’s no way for crews in flight to know how the typically high cabin altitude (usually equivalent to the high altitude of Mexico City) will intensify intoxication effects in passengers — nor do many passengers themselves. Add to that the unknown (at least to crews) wild cards of other medications or other behavioral disorders in passengers and selling intoxicants on board seems like an untenable risk.

Any other business serving alcohol could be held criminally or civilly negligent for not having able-bodied staff (read: bouncers) to handle aggressive, intoxicated patrons or worse, for not calling for law enforcement to handle such volatile situations. An airliner in flight has no ability to remove intoxicated passengers, no able-bodied staff to manage such cases and worst of all, no access to law enforcement help when such dangerous incidents play out on board. And yet, they still sell alcohol in flight?

Finally, passengers themselves are a major part of the problem. In 2016, the twin issues of passenger compliance with crew instructions and acceptance of personal responsibility are at an all time low. There’s always someone else to blame — usually the airlines — for transgressive, often violent behavior in flight. Fights break out over an armrest; add alcohol to the volatile mix and the short fuse of temper burns hot.

We’ve heard the tired arguments justifying alcohol sales in airports and on board flights: it’s all about personal freedom, relaxation, choices, and socialization — basically, the dead and buried arguments that smokers used until the nineties to justified that ugly blight in the terminals and in the air. Somehow, smoking in airports and on board went extinct in the last century, and air travelers are none the worse for the loss.

If airlines, airports and passengers themselves are serious about safer, more secure and less violent flights, alcohol needs to fade into the same extinction that removed smoking from airports and airliners.

Airports, airlines and most passengers are aware of the risk involved in alcohol and air travel. Now it’s a question of who will finally do the right thing for everyone involved and ban alcohol sales in airports and aboard flights.



11 Responses to “Drunks on a Plane.”

  1. Thomas Davis Says:

    Makes sense to me. We don’t need drunks on a plane.

  2. Karsten Says:

    There is – as always – the problem that a minority that can not control themselves will force the majority to comply with rules only reasonable for the minority.
    Modern air travel is bad enough. The fun that there was – somewhere in the 80’s and early 90’s – is gone. Completely gone. Those days, I was looking forward to flights. You were treated like a guest – not as cattle – and there was no problem having a drink – or two, or three – aboard and the stewardess (yep, that’s what they’ve been called those days) was always quick to replace or refill your glass. Or light up your fag, should you decide to smoke.

    Today, the pleasure has been driven out of flying (except for first and sometimes business) and it is a very unpleasant experience beginning with bad infrastructure on the way to the airport, long queues for check-in or baggage drop, hours of wait in the various TSA queues and planes crammed to capacity – and beyond.

    There are airlines in Europe (in Europe, for God’s sake!) that have seats that I physically can not sit in. And no, I am not obese, just slightly tall (close to 6 ft 5 in) weighing in 200 lbs. But I won’t fit into those seats as there is just not enough room for my legs and the rest of me.

    Some can not cope the added stress without a reasonable amount of tranquilants.

    Others build up so much aggression and frustration in the process that it has to flare up. Alcohol is not the problem, it is just a catalyzer here.

    Prohibiting alcohol won’t solve the problem of modern air transport.

    Treat your customers as a guest, not as cattle, not as Self Loading Freight, start charging fees that won’t scrape the bottom and re-introduce hospitality – not hostility.

    • Sorry, but alcohol isn’t a “tranquilant” and yes, a “catalyzer” must be removed for everyone’s safety. You seem to think that restrictions on the majority in order to control the minority is exceptional, but in reality, it’s the essence of public law. Using your illogic, drivers on the LA freeway ought to drink in traffic to make the experience pleasant. Probably an equally bad idea.

      • silveraquila Says:

        It all starts at the top….corporate GREED, those airline execs running around with $ signs in their eyes….and to an extent, their employees. I can feel quite well, and its some employees AND the/their management which resist bringing back service in the air. Damn, airlines are making money hand over fist yet theres no meal, $25/$50 to take a damned bag with you on your trip…as you can tell, I’m not a fan of the “unbundled” business model. They should try out bringing back meals on flights, it costs what, around 5 or 6 dollars? Increase the tkt price a little . See how it works out. At least bring back the bistro bags…those sandwiches I used to get on AA S80’s from ATL-ORD were great! Usually turkey!

  3. Cedarglen Says:

    I’m glad that you included the airlines themselves. I do not know, but I’d guess that there is more alcohol sold/served for immediate consumption on aircraft, than in airport bars. For the airlines, it is a huge revenue stream that they will not relinquish without a substantial fight. Even if my guess is incorrect, the volume dispensed in both venues is staggering. Is any in-flight booze necessary?

  4. Bill Brandt Says:

    Do any flight attendants bear responsibility for giving one too many on board? BTW I think Pikes Peak is about 14,000 feet –

    But your premise is true – and noted. If they are that drunk and noticeably aggressive before they even get onto the plane, they should be barred. Think what it costs everyone to have to divert a plane for some drunks.

    “alcohol and wills bring out one;s true character”

    BTW perhaps another topic Tom Sullivan had on the radio yesterday – passengers with wild attire. Jet Blue denied her boarding unless she changed her attire.


    Sure is different from the days in the 50s/early 60s when people dressed up and behaved.

  5. […] via Drunks on a Plane. — The JetHead Blog […]

  6. Marc Engel Says:

    Chris, I don’t know how many alcoholics you’ve ever known, but in my experience, if you remove a channel of availability (bars at the airport, for example) then they will tank up another way–like carry a hip flask, or toss back a couple at a bar adjacent to the Airport. As a crowd control professional for a lot of years, I can tell you that the ‘troublemakers’ who act up because they are intoxicated, arrive at the venue (in my case a concert venue) already waaay past over-served. You can frequently spot them walking in the door (though I was never good enough at it to spot every one of ’em). I’ll stipulate that they WILL take advantage of the beverages on site at the venue on top of what they consumed before they arrived, but even if they didn’t, they were already “three-sheets” before we ever lay eyes on them. You take issue frequently with the clowns performing ‘security theatre’ at the airport. It strikes me that banning alcohol at an airport would be nice window-dressing, but I don’t think it’ll fix the problem as I interpret your blog to assert. But I DO think that bartenders/servers should be trained and smart enough to recognize when Mr. or Ms. Passenger doesn’t need another drink. BTW: I consume alcoholic beverages on occasion, but I’ve never purchased one at an airport or on a plane, for the same reason I carry my baggage–I don’t like to be gouged. If alcohol was not available at an airport, or on a plane, it wouldn’t put a dent in my day. Offered respectfully to the guy in the corner office of my airplane.

  7. Thank you, Chris, for bringing this up. It’s long overdue.

  8. silveraquila Says:

    Chris, I love your writing and your cartoons! You’re a man of vary many talents Sir.

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