Opinion: Should booze be banned on commercial flights?

Flight attendants have reported a record number of incidents involving unruly passengers so far this year. The No. 1 problem is opposition to the mask mandate, but alcohol is often the catalyst.

“There are quite a few people who can go without a drink for the duration of any domestic flight. I commend them to you.”F.N.E. Halaby, administrator, Federal Aviation Administration, 1961.

Should the age of prohibition come back for airports and airlines? 

Perhaps I should find a better way to word that. Even 90 years later, prohibition has a bad connotation. No one wants Al Capone running the friendly skies. 

How about this: Should we initiate an age of common sense in air travel? 

Sixty years ago, flight attendants (then referred to as stewardesses) complained mostly about male passengers making lewd comments or trying to ask them on dates, at least according to news accounts from the time. Mask mandates hadn’t been a thing since the flu pandemic, which was before commercial air travel blossomed. 

And yet Halaby, quoted above, understood what some airline executives today are slowly coming to realize. The root cause often was booze.

Alcohol and passenger comfort don’t mix, at least not in excess. Today, evidence shows, we have too much of one and too little of the other.

Having your knees crammed into your chest for several hours while wearing a mask may be tolerable to sober people of sound mind, but add too much alcohol and mayhem often ensues. And no, this isn’t always true. Other factors, including a general increase in societal rudeness, may be to blame. But the people on the front lines say alcohol often plays a role, and it isn’t just the alcohol available on the flight.

Through the first nine months of this year, the FAA initiated 789 investigations into unruly or disruptive passengers aboard commercial flights. That’s roughly the same as how many were initiated during the combined five-year period of 2015-20. 

But that tells only part of the story. Airlines filed 4,385 unruly passenger complaints during that same time this year. Not all ended in an investigation, but it’s fair to assume many of them were disturbing, disruptive and frightening for other passengers.

During a recent hearing by a subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in Washington, Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said a survey found that 85% of flight attendants had dealt with unruly passengers during the first half of the year. These incidents range from verbal abuse, including sexual, racist and homophobic slurs, to physical altercations.

The No. 1 trigger for these is the FAA’s mask mandate, she said. But a close second is alcohol abuse. Often, the two are difficult to tell apart. 

And they are exacerbated by bars and restaurants at airports that sell alcoholic drinks to go and that, according to the flight attendants, encourage people to take them along on flights. Because airlines allow passengers to bring water and soft drinks along when they board, it’s difficult to distinguish between soft and hard beverages. The hard ones are forbidden as carry-on items.

“Stopping to-go alcohol should be low-hanging fruit here,” Nelson told the committee. 

The current head of the FAA, Steve Dickson, wrote a letter earlier this year to all airports, telling them to find ways to get the restaurants and bars to knock it off, but apparently little has happened.

“Not only has this practice not stopped,” Nelson told lawmakers, “it is encouraged and promoted, giving passengers the false idea that they can bring their own alcohol onboard and encouraging as much drinking as possible.”

In typical fashion, the hearing degenerated into political blame-casting, with some accusing the Biden administration of having confusing policies and others blaming states without mask mandates for turning a trip to the airport into an exercise in mixed signals. One lawmaker wanted to make a statement about union violence.

In other words, don’t look for laws about to-go orders at airports anytime soon. That’s a shame.

Meanwhile, however, some airlines have resorted to prohibition. American and Southwest began banning in-flight alcohol sales last spring. The Washington Post reported that these airlines recently extended those bans until January, at least. Other airlines limit alcohol sales according to the duration of the flight.

Airlines are talking about other preventive measures, such as creating a do-not-fly database that would allow offenders to be banned from future flying. They also are encouraging law enforcement to more aggressively punish perpetrators.

This wasn’t the first time Congress held hearings on this issue. In 1957, a Senate committee considered the idea of banning alcohol on flights. Back then, newspaper columnist and psychologist George W. Crane referred to airplanes as “flying saloons.” 

Nothing changed as a result, although back then the term “unruly passenger” seems to have described a more civilized type of behavior than it does today.

Clearly, what flight attendants describe now is a new and frightening definition that often makes flying dangerous for everyone. Alcohol isn’t the only culprit. But doing away with it on flights would at least be a commonsense place to start.

Jay Evensen is the Deseret News’ senior editorial columnist.