Is it illegal to drink your own alcohol on an airplane?

Aug 9, 2020

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Nervous flyers — and plenty of other folks as well — enjoy having a drink or two while in the air.

We even had a reader write in to Brian Kelly’s weekly newsletter recently asking whether or not, “passengers can bring cocktails from the airport terminal on board an aircraft, or whether airlines would sell their miniature bottles of alcohol to passengers before boarding” since most airlines aren’t selling alcohol in the economy cabin during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Unfortunately, the answer is no — even amid the changes in service due to COVID-19.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) regulations regarding onboard alcohol consumption, which appear in the Federal Register at 14 CFR 121.575, notes:

§ 121.575 alcoholic beverages: (a) No person may drink any alcoholic beverage aboard an aircraft unless the certificate holder operating the aircraft has served that beverage to him.

It is, in fact, illegal to drink your own alcohol on an airplane, and U.S. air carriers are required to obey FAA regulations at all times, regardless of airspace. That means even when flying over Mexico or any other country, you still can’t start drinking your own moonshine on a domestic airline.

That doesn’t seem to have stopped some thirsty passengers.

Airlines like American and Southwest describe an increase in reports from flight attendants alleging passengers drinking their own alcohol during flights. Southwest has added a reminder to its preflight announcements that reiterates the illegality of consuming your own alcohol on board an aircraft.

Until airlines resume alcohol service during flight, you’ll have to enjoy your boozy beverages before boarding. Luckily, airlines have started to reopen airport lounges across the country. And, if you don’t have access to traditional airline lounges, several premium credit cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve, provide a Priority Pass membership as a perk, giving you access to lounges or a credit to certain restaurants at participating airports.

Related: The best credit cards for Priority Pass lounge access

But hang on, because “drinking” and “bringing on board with you” are two completely separate things, and just because you can’t drink your spirits doesn’t mean you can’t bring them onto an airplane.

Sharing a drink with the person sitting next to you. (Photo by ColorBlind Images/Getty Images)
(Photo by ColorBlind Images/Getty Images)

For alcohol you bring in your carry-on, the TSA’s rules on liquids, in general, come into play. So, you’re limited to bottles that are no more than 3.4 ounces in capacity each. But you aren’t limited to just one bottle. In fact, according to the TSA …

Travelers may carry as many 3.4 ounce bottles of liquid (mini bottles of liquor are 1.7 ounces) that fit comfortably in one quart-sized, clear plastic, zip-top bag. Comfortable means that the bag will seal without busting at the seams. One bag is permitted per passenger.

That’s potentially useful if you’ve got a bagful of tiny airplane-sized bottles, but that’s probably unlikely. Fortunately, you’ve got a lot more leeway in checked baggage.

Travelers may take up to 5 liters of alcohol with alcohol content between 24% and 70% per person as checked luggage if it’s packaged in a sealable bottle or flask. Alcoholic beverages with less than 24% alcohol content are not subject to hazardous materials regulations.

And then there’s the unique situation of duty-free alcohol purchases. Since you’re already through security when you purchase duty-free bottles of the sweet sauce, you’re not limited to carrying just 3.4-ounce bottles onboard. It’s important, however, to keep two other restrictions in mind.

First, you’ll need to declare upon landing any alcohol beyond 1 liter for personal use (and be aware that any amount beyond a case may trigger customs to consider you a commercial importer).

Second, if your arrival point in the U.S. is not your final destination, you’ll end up back under TSA rules for the connecting flight and won’t be able to bring anything more than 3.4-ounce bottles into the cabin, which means any duty-free purchases will have to go back into your checked luggage.

Duty free. (Photo by: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)
(Photo by: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)

Since, in most cases, you collect your bags after an international flight and then recheck them, it wouldn’t be impossible to put the bottles in your luggage at that point. Just don’t forget to do it before you hand your bags back over or you’ll end up losing Grandpa’s cough syrup.

With all that said, it’s always possible you’ll have a flight crew that doesn’t care if you want to drink your own alcohol. On Brian Kelly’s Egypt Air flight from New York (JFK) to Cairo, Egypt (CAI), he and his father asked a flight attendant if it was OK to drink beers they’d brought along.

“I couldn’t care less. Do what you want,” she told them.

So, as with all things in travel, your mileage may vary, but you should know the rules in advance and not expect an exception, even if you might end up getting one.

And, finally, there’s one airline that’s figured out a way to use all of these rules to benefit its customers. JetBlue will allow you to drink your own alcohol on board, as long as you present it to them first so they can serve it to you, thereby adhering to FAA regulations.

Now, at least, you’ll know which carrier to choose if you’re looking to keep the cost of imbibing to a minimum.

Feature photo by Chalabala / Getty Images.

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