Unpopular opinion: Why airlines shouldn’t be serving alcohol on flights right now

Sep 23, 2020

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If you’re heading to the airport these days, you’ll be expected to wear a face mask from the time you enter the airport until you depart baggage claim at the other end. Perhaps you’ve also packed a face shield, disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer. After all, for most passengers, staying healthy is probably the most important travel amenity of all right now.

Still, some parts of the travel experience are returning to something close to normal.

Alcohol and many food items haven’t returned to the economy section of most planes just yet. But if you’re flying in first class right now, you might be forgiven for thinking you’d traveled back in time to 2019.

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I’ve flown a total of four times on three different airlines during the pandemic. And while that’s still a pretty small sample size to draw big conclusions, it’s been enough for me to walk off the plane with one strong opinion. And because it involves masks, 2020 and alcohol, I know it’s going to be controversial: If airlines genuinely want to prioritize safety, alcohol needs to stay on the “no fly” list until wearing a face mask isn’t necessary.

Here’s why.

It’s all about safety …

Every major U.S. airline has a rule that you must wear a face mask during flight, in the airport, at the gate — basically for the duration of your air travel journey. Throughout the pandemic, airlines have become increasingly strict about enforcing this measure.

In the last few weeks, most airlines have banned face masks with valves and clarified that children ages 2 and up must now wear masks — just like adults. In fact, hundreds of passengers — including a few families with young children — have been removed from flights or barred from future flights due to noncompliance with mask mandates.

And that’s to say nothing of the airlines taking travelers’ temperatures before flights; asking flyers to complete pre-travel health questionnaires; the new cleaning procedures, blocked middle seats and more. In short, airlines have adjusted operations and rules dramatically to keep travelers healthy and safe in the midst of a pandemic.

(Photo by Andrea Bacle Photography for The Points Guy)
(Photo by Andrea Bacle Photography for The Points Guy)

… until the drinks are poured

But as some safety measures continue to ramp up, many U.S. airlines have simultaneously brought more robust food and beverage service back to the sky — including complimentary alcohol in first class.

As a result, passengers can now reasonably lower their masks to consume whatever food or drinks they may have brought with them on the plane, or have been offered in the forward cabin.

Even in normal times, it’s tough to say “no thanks” to a free drink in the sky. I know I’m much more likely to have a glass of wine at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning when it’s free on an airplane.

On a recent 90-minute domestic flight out of Houston (IAH) on United, for example, our first-class upgrades cleared, and since the cabin wasn’t totally full even with processed upgrades, we took our newly assigned seats toward the front of the plane. Not long after takeoff, the flight attendant made her rounds with complimentary alcohol to flyers in the first four rows of the plane.

In the olden days (circa 2019), that would be our signal to kick back and toast to the start of our vacation. But now, removing a face shield, outer mask and N95 mask just to sip on free white wine in seat 4C sounded like a bad idea. We’d have more space (and better booze) by the pool at our vacation home rental anyway.

But, that opinion was clearly unpopular.

Almost every adult in first class who wasn’t in our traveling party that Saturday morning accepted a free drink or two, or three. This meant they removed their masks to leisurely sip on beverages, in several cases, for the majority of the flight. Suddenly, face masks rules had been replaced with glasses of Jack and Coke. And we all know that once you have a couple of drinks, it’s pretty common to worry less about, well, almost everything — including that face mask.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

And while it’s not a universal occurrence that happens on every flight, the pattern has repeated elsewhere.

During a recent American Airlines flight from Dallas to Montana, another family reported sitting next to two men who drank free first-class drinks and sang karaoke from their phone for most of the flight. As you’d probably guess from that description, the drinking and singing was done without masks.

Another family flying from Seattle to Honolulu over the summer told TPG they were seated next to a man in first class who “drank the entire time and didn’t wear his mask for most of the 6-hour flight.” In fact, there were several first-class passengers who didn’t wear masks for most of the flight, while their 5-year-old kept her mask on.

And while exploring the West, TPG senior news editor Clint Henderson also encountered a few first-class flyers who were served more than one drink and kept their masks off for long periods of time as a result — though on his flights, that behavior has been more exception than the rule.

Related: Guide to countries where Americans can travel right now

First class, different rules

This may truly be a “first-class problem,” as several airlines currently have an alcohol divide between first and economy.

Delta Air Lines has resumed complimentary alcohol service in its first class and Delta Comfort+ seats on flights of more than 500 miles. But economy-class Delta flyers remain seated in an alcohol-free zone.

Similarly, American Airlines is only offering alcohol in first class (by request), except on long-haul international flights where it’s also available in the economy cabin.

And United is again offering complimentary alcohol in first class and in economy on select international flights.

I’m all for a nice beverage, especially on vacation, but I can’t help but wonder: What’s the point of mandatory inflight face masks when you don’t have to actually wear one if you’re sipping on a beverage?

More curious, still, is the decision to keep alcohol out of economy on many airlines while it’s flowing freely in first.

Related: What it’s like to fly in the U.S. right now

a patchwork quilt of policies

There are certainly people who think face masks are a waste of time, just as there are travelers who won’t feel comfortable boarding a plane until the pandemic is fully resolved — with or without masks.

But, there are also plenty of people who want (or need) to start traveling again, who also believe the pandemic is a very real ongoing threat and that face masks and social distancing reduce the risk of transmission. These travelers may decide to fly if, and only if, there’s a reasonable belief that masks will be worn, middle seats will be blocked and cleaning procedures will be followed.

Unfortunately for this group, it’s hard to know what to expect, especially if adults who drink and eat on airplanes can essentially do away with their masks even while 2-year-olds must comply with the policies.

Madhu Unnikrishnan, the editor of Skift’s Airline Weekly, told TPG that, in the absence of clear mandates from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or the Department of Transportation (DOT), airlines have been left to put in place a “patchwork quilt of policies” that can be hard for passengers to understand or navigate.

Bottom line

A flight attendant who flew for a major international carrier until recently told TPG in an email that, “What people need to keep in mind is that air travel during this time isn’t a luxury, [it’s] a necessity, and airlines have restructured their services to match this shift. Don’t [show] up expecting to enjoy the same flight amenities and experiences of yesteryear.”

He went on to explain that the minimum service is also a safety precaution for the crew to limit their time in the cabin.

And yes, what you drink can make a difference also.

If you’re drinking water, you’ll probably take a sip or two to rehydrate and then are done for a while and can put your mask back on. That’s what I saw firsthand on a recent Southwest flight where only water and a snack mix were served.

Unless you’re in a beer-guzzling contest, however, the entire point of an adult beverage is usually to sip and enjoy it over time — which is exactly what some people are doing.

In a world when masks are no longer expected and required, let’s have some fine wine served on board and toast to a resumption of normal life at 36,000 feet.

I know skipping the inflight drink isn’t any fun, but right now, in a world where many travelers don’t even feel comfortable getting on a plane, let’s please go with safety over celebrations. Regardless of whether passengers are in Seat 1A or 33B, if the idea is for everyone on board to wear masks during the flight, it makes little sense to entice some passengers to take off their masks and leisurely sip free alcohol for the duration of the flight … even in first class.

Featured image by Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

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