The Not-So-Friendly Skies

The history (and danger) of alcohol on airplanes

The flight crew gets tough: Practicing how to disable drunks. Hong Kong Airlines

Escalating baggage fees. No more in-flight meals. Delayed flights. Loud cell-phone talkers. And let’s not forget the drunks.

It may be that intoxicated passengers are the most dangerous of all. AvWeb recently reported that drunk passengers caused the crash of a Cessna 185 in 2010. (“The postulates that a rear-seat passenger pushed the pilot’s seat forward with his or her feet and held him and the control column pinned to the panel until the Atelo Air Services aircraft dove at a 45-degree angle into the ocean.” See the full report here.)

Oh, sure, there are other kinds of “air rage”—remember the guy who punched a 15-year-old teenager for not turning off his cell phone? Or the passenger who started flinging foot powder because his flight was delayed?

It wasn’t until 1949 that domestic airlines began serving alcohol, writes Daniel Rust, assistant director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who has done some research into the matter. “In the United States a Commerce Department rule against the transportation of intoxicating liquor or drunk passengers aboard commercial airplanes—a product of the Prohibition era—coupled with the fear that critics would decry the mixing of flying and alcohol, prompted U.S. airlines to steer clear of alcohol,” he writes in Flying Across America: The Airline Passenger Experience. (Rust includes this bizarre story: In 1938, Olympic swimmer Eleanor Holm smuggled alcohol aboard an American Airlines flight. Arriving in Tucson completely drunk, Holm emerged from the airplane stark naked. The flight crew “tied her to a tree so she would not wander off before coming out of her drunken stupor.”)

In the mid-1950s, American and TWA began serving alcoholic beverages to passengers. United was next to add cocktails on its men-only Executive flights, and Western Airlines added “champagne flights” in 1954. But by 1955, the Airline Stewardess Association began to petition for an end to in-flight liquor service, citing unruly passengers as the reason. In the fall of 1955, the Air Transport Association recommended that airlines not allow intoxicated passengers to board flights, and to not serve alcohol on flights under two hours in length. (The airlines refused.)

In 1956, says Rust, “a House committee set forth a bill requiring prohibition of all in-flight alcohol service on domestic flights. Under pressure, six U.S. airlines voluntarily agreed….to individual passengers to two 1.6-ounce containers of hard liquor per trip. The airlines noted, however, that they would not restrict beer and wine service.” Even after Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn was attacked by a drunken passenger on a domestic flight, a bill restricting alcohol service died in the Senate.

In 1960, the Federal Aviation Agency, giving in to pressure from pilots and flight crews, ruled that passengers could not bring their own alcohol on board flights, and could only drink the alcohol being served by the flight crew. The agency also stated that airlines could not serve alcohol to any passenger who appeared to be intoxicated.

Not that this would have helped the Cessna 185, mentioned above, as the passengers were already drunk. “The passengers were intoxicated,” the report notes, “however they were able to walk and were sufficiently coherent to argue about the price of the charter.”

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