Here’s what you need to know about al­co­hol on planes


On a re­cent Delta Air Lines flight from Ne­wark to Min­neapo­lis, a pas­sen­ger seated near Stephanie Wolkin downed five mini-bot­tles of vodka in rapid suc­ces­sion. By the time the plane landed, the in­tox­i­cated pas­sen­ger had be­come vi­o­lently ill, and Wolkin, a re­tired union worker from St. Paul, Min­nesota, had earned 10,000 fre­quent-flier miles the hard way.

A ma­jor­ity of pas­sen­gers drink when they fly, ac­cord­ing to a new sur­vey by Fractl, a mar­ket­ing agency in Del­ray Beach, Florida More than 8 in 10 pas­sen­gers say they have con­sumed al­co­hol while wait­ing at the air­port, and that num­ber in­creases to more than 90 per­cent once in the air. Mil­len­ni­als are 10 per­cent more likely to be in­tox­i­cated on a flight than older pas­sen­gers, ac­cord­ing to the sur­vey.

Al­co­hol has fu­eled some of the most hor­rific in-flight in­ci­dents in re­cent years, in­clud­ing loud con­fronta­tions, bloody brawls and sex­ual as­saults. This sum­mer, Irish dis­count air­line Ryanair pub­licly called for re­stric­tions on al­co­hol sales at air­ports and a ban on al­co­hol sales be­fore 10 a.m.

Few peo­ple ac­tu­ally talk about al­co­hol on planes beyond the phys­i­o­log­i­cal ef­fects of con­sum­ing a few beers in­side a pres­sur­ized alu­minum tube. How much should you drink on board? What should you do when some­one next to you is drink­ing to ex­cess? And have we reached a point where we should limit – or ban – al­co­holic bev­er­ages on board?

Los An­ge­les psy­chi­a­trist Brian Cass­massi re­mem­bers a red-eye flight to Europe shortly af­ter he ob­tained his MD. About half­way there, the flight at­ten­dants asked if there was a doc­tor on board. “A fe­male pas­sen­ger had be­come ine­bri­ated from drink­ing two small air­line al­co­hol bot­tles and tak­ing her pre­scribed Am­bien,” Cass­massi re­calls. “She was com­bat­ive to­ward the flight at­ten­dants and other pas­sen­gers seated near her. I helped to re­strain her and calm her in the gal­ley un­til we made an emer­gency land­ing.”

Cass­massi thinks one or two mini-bot­tles on a flight are usu­ally fine, but it de­pends on the pas­sen­ger. Flight crews have to mon­i­tor their be­hav­ior care­fully to en­sure they’re not over­do­ing it, he says. While ac­tual blood al­co­hol con­cen­tra­tion re­mains the same dur­ing flights as it is on land, peo­ple can feel the ef­fects more read­ily be­cause of slightly de­creased oxy­gen lev­els in the blood, ac­cord­ing to Cass­massi.

“Air­planes keep the cabin pres­sure about 4 per­cent lower than nor­mal pres­sure at sea level, which slightly low­ers oxy­gen in­take,” he ex­plains. “With that dip in oxy­gen for fuel, the brain is more sus­cep­ti­ble to the ef­fects of cer­tain sub­stances like al­co­hol, and so peo­ple can feel more buzzed sooner with a drink.”

Among air­lines, al­co­hol avail­abil­ity runs from an out­right ban to free drinks. Mid­dle Eastern car­ri­ers such as Royal Brunei Air­lines, Saudi Ara­bian Air­lines and Egyp­tAir fly al­co­hol-free. Other air­lines don’t serve adult bev­er­ages on do­mes­tic flights (Turk­ish Air­lines and many Chi­nese air­lines, for ex­am­ple). A ma­jor­ity of air­lines still serve al­co­hol, but may charge you for it, ex­cept in busi­ness and first class, where drinks are still in­cluded in the price of your ticket.

Flight at­ten­dants un­dergo al­co­hol train­ing us­ing the traf­fic light sys­tem that bars and restau­rants use to cat­e­go­rize pa­trons: green for social drinkers be­hav­ing within social norms, yel­low for lower in­hi­bi­tions and in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior, and red for im­paired mo­tor func­tions. When pas­sen­gers shift to yel­low, they cut them off. But when the drinks start flow­ing at 36,000 feet, flight at­ten­dants are out­num­bered, and it falls to pas­sen­gers to en­sure that other pas­sen­gers are not overindulging. That’s par­tic­u­larly true when pas­sen­gers start drink­ing be­fore the flight or bring their own booze.

“Modern man­ners dic­tate that be­fore drink­ing your­self straight into the air­sick­ness bag, you must con­sider all other pas­sen­gers along­side you, be­cause they have fewer op­tions than you do,” says Sharon Sch­weitzer, an eti­quette ex­pert who runs the con­sult­ing firm Ac­cess to Cul­ture.

But what if your fel­low pas­sen­ger doesn’t see it that way? I re­mem­ber sit­ting next to a young woman on a South­west Air­lines flight re­cently. When­ever the flight at­ten­dant came within shout­ing dis­tance, she or­dered a white wine and drained it in sev­eral gulps. Two chardon­nays into the con­ver­sa­tion, she started to ex­hibit all kinds of yel­low-light be­hav­ior.

Al­most the mo­ment I thought, “What am I go­ing to do now?” a stern-faced flight at­ten­dant ma­te­ri­al­ized next to me. The pas­sen­ger in­stinc­tively tilted her plas­tic cup to­ward her, but the crew mem­ber slowly shook her head.

“I’m sorry,” the at­ten­dant said in a not-sorry tone. “We can’t serve you any more.”

The woman then fell asleep on my shoul­der. I could have han­dled that sit­u­a­tion dif­fer­ently, ex­perts say. The steps for de­fus­ing dis­agree­ments in­volv­ing al­co­hol on planes are iden­ti­cal to those for de­fus­ing any con­flict. First, ask the pas­sen­ger to slow down on the drink­ing. You can hint at that by say­ing: “Could I get you a glass of wa­ter? I hear al­co­hol de­hy­drates you on a plane.”

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