How much alcohol can you drink on a plane?
By Claire Trageser
On a recent flight from Boston to San Diego, the gentleman seated next to me ordered six to eight shots of whiskey during a 5.5-hour flight.
I say “six to eight” because I saw him order a coke with two mini bottles of whiskey three times, and my husband saw him place that order three times. But he thinks I missed the first order and he missed the last, which would mean four orders total.
Did I mention we were seated in an exit row?
Nothing significant happened, other than the man dropping some grapes on me from his fruit and cheese plate and laughing uproariously at whatever Vince Vaughn movie he was watching.
Apparently, we were lucky. The news is filled with reports of drunk and unruly passengers, including, perhaps most famously, the passenger on an Icelandair flight who got so out of control that the crew taped him to his seat.
Bill Balderaz was on a flight from Las Vegas to Columbus, Ohio when a drunk passenger sat down next to his friend.
“He reeked of alcohol and immediately upon sitting next to my friend passed out onto my friend’s shoulder,” Balderaz reported. “Then the drunk started cuddling up to my male friend. The drunk woke up after about 7 minutes and started screaming and swearing like a sailor and flailing his arms. Then he collapsed back onto my friend’s shoulder.”
Steve Albrecht said he was flying from New York City to San Diego in first class when his seatmate drank four cocktails and a bottle of wine with dinner, then threw up all over him.
“His puke ruined my motherboard,” Albrecht reported.
Federal regulations do not set a limit on how many drinks can be served to one passenger during a flight. Instead, they stipulate that drinks can’t be served to anyone who “appears to be intoxicated,” or who “has a deadly or dangerous weapon accessible to him while aboard the aircraft.” Not sure who exactly this would apply to, except maybe air marshals.
Most airlines do not have specific guidelines either.
American Airlines follows federal regulations “and will not serve an inebriated passenger,” according to a spokesman. Delta flight attendants also follow federal regulations. And Alaska Airline policies “closely mirror those of other establishments that serve alcohol,” said spokeswoman Halley Knigge. “A customer cannot order more than a double at a time, and we will not serve someone who appears to be intoxicated.”
She added that “despite popular belief,” passengers can’t bring their own mini bottles on the flight, even if they’re under 3 oz.
But there’s a push for airlines to do more. The International Air Transport Association, an airline trade association, views unruly or intoxicated passengers as enough of a problem to name a study on the issue “The Devil in Our Midst” – the devil being the unruly passenger. Last year the association moved to establish a new set of protocols for handling out-of-control passengers.
The idea is to make sure airlines have policies and training programs set up, “including de-escalation techniques, responsible service of alcohol and use of restraint devices,” said spokesman Perry Flint.
“IATA has not made any proposals concerning restrictions on the provision of alcohol in flight,” he said. “However, IATA recommends that crews are trained to recognize and manage possible intoxication which could result in restriction of further alcohol service.”
In the experience of Mélanie Hope, cutting someone off after he or she appears drunk may not do enough to help. Hope is a professional speaker and often ends up flying home to Las Vegas on Friday nights, which leads to a lot of time spent on party planes.
“My most recent encounter was with one man who got upset with the man behind him because the first felt the second was kicking his seat,” she said. “After unbuckling and threatening the man behind him with violence, his girlfriend, who was sitting next to me, offered to trade places for the rest of the flight. It was a completely full flight, so the attendants were very grateful for the solution.”
In the case of my six-to-eight whiskey seatmate, I wouldn’t classify him as “unruly.” When I tweeted about his drink orders and tagged the airline we were on, I got a direct message from the airline’s account saying “flight attendants are trained to watch for signs of intoxication” and apologizing for my experience.
I said there was no significant issue, but it did seem that six whiskeys (not to mention eight) would be enough to make anyone intoxicated.