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Despite some well-publicized incidents involving drunk passengers, U.S. airlines aren’t about to fly dry. The revenue is just too big. But flight attendants say drunk passengers are the top source of harassment and want airline staff to keep them off planes.

A drunken passenger last December assaulted a flight attendant on a Southwest Airlines flight from Nashville to Tampa, forcing the plane to divert to Birmingham, Alabama.

In February, a New York-bound JetBlue flight from the Dominican Republic had to make an emergency landing at Washington Dulles when a drunk passenger caressed another flier, then threw snacks at and kicked a flight attendant.

In April, a man raged at a flight attendant on an American Airlines flight from St. Croix to Miami, after he was refused alcoholic beverages.

The American incident, widely shared on YouTube, resulted in the passenger’s arrest on charges of interfering with a flight crew, a federal felony offense.

Given that such incidents seem to happen on a monthly basis, generating unwanted publicity for the passengers and the airline, it’s easy to wonder: Would U.S. carriers ever consider flying dry?

After all, a number of international airlines operate alcohol-free flights, mainly on trips that are flown by Middle East-based companies, or which originate in the Middle East. Elsewhere, some airlines serve limited offerings, such as only water and juice, on their shortest flights, but that’s mostly to make service go faster.

Booze is a Revenue-Producing Staple

By and large, alcohol is going to remain an aspect of flights within the United States and to many countries overseas, for two reasons.

First, the revenue that booze generates for the airlines, and passengers’ expectation that they’ll be able to have a drink during a flight.

“Beverages are a very profitable line of business for airlines, and still an expected amenity, not only in premium cabins,” said Robert W. Mann, Jr., an aviation consultant.

“I don’t see inflight drinks going away, but I do see drunks being dispatched quickly and decisively, which is entirely appropriate, since you don’t want the impaired driving home on arrival.”

Airlines do not publish alcohol revenue, and several airlines contacted by Skift declined to share their companies’ figures.

However, the onboard technology company GuestLogix estimates that alcohol spending is passengers’ largest single in-flight expense, far surpassing food items, and comfort items such as headphones and blankets.

During a four-month period in 2013 and 2014, the most recent time GuestLogix measured the data, five major airlines brought in $43 million in alcohol sales. If that spending held up over an entire year, that would mean major airlines collect nearly $130 million annually from alcohol sales.

And, the figure could be higher, given prices have gone up.

In February, Southwest set aside its long-held $5 happy hour and added $1 to $2 onto the price of alcoholic beverages. Southwest still charges a little less than its competitors, however.

Meanwhile, JetBlue has rolled out a menu featuring D.I.Y. Drinks, which teach a passenger how to combine items available on board to make their own craft cocktails.

For instance, a Mile-High Mule includes Tito’s handmade vodka, which costs $7, with ginger ale and a packet of powdered lime juice. A rum punch includes Bacardi rum, also $7, plus cranberry juice and pineapple juice.

Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for Southwest, said there are “no dry flights planned or in operation. (How much would THAT flight suck?)”

But Hawkins said Southwest flight attendants are trained to limit the sale of alcohol to any passenger who shows signs of intoxication during flights.

Passengers Want It

There’s definitely an audience that wants to imbibe on board.

“Drinking age and flying-alone age came a long time ago for me, at 18,” said C. Claiborne Ray, a retired New York Times editor. “I still want my adult beverages! I enjoy a drink or two on a flight, especially one long enough for meals. A glass of wine or sometimes a liqueur helps smooth over the many major and minor irritants of flying these days.”

Added Virginia Willis, the cookbook writer and author of Secrets Of The Southern Table: “I do like a drink at the end of the day and at the beginning of my “weekend” — whenever that happens — if I’m on a plane, so be it.”

But Willis noted something many industry officials feel contributes to the drunken incidents.

“I am always amazed at customers at bars in airports at all hours of the day – and that’s where I think the actual trouble starts,” she said. “The troublemakers are over served before they get on the plane.”

Taylor Garland, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, said airline staff, including gate agents and customer service agents, need to work more closely with flight attendants to keep intoxicated passengers from boarding.

“We try to keep the situation on the ground,” Garland said. “We want to keep them off the plane before it takes off.”

But, she said that’s often out of an airline’s control. “People get to the airport early. Their flights get delayed. And if they’re headed to a vacation destination, they might drink more than they usually would,” she said.

Garland said the flight attendants’ union knows airlines are not about to remove alcohol from planes entirely.

However, she said intoxicated passengers are the number one reason why flight attendants face harassment during flight, and wants the public to be aware of the situation.

That might persuade a passenger to skip that one last drink, whether in the airport or on board.

“Understand that when you’re coming on board, there are 100 or more people who want to have an uneventful flight,” Garland said. “You’re not alone on the plane. So, bring a sense of community on board.”

Doug Levy, a San Francisco-based writer, said he can see the benefits of doing away with alcoholic drinks.

“On one level, I like that it’s available, but eliminating it would also eliminate the stupid people who drink too much,” he said. “That’s a small price to pay for a bonus like that.”

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Tags: airline innovation, airline passenger experience, ancillary revenue, U.S. airlines

Photo credit: Alcohol-related incidents on airplanes have made news lately but don't expect airlines to ban liquor, beer and wine. The money is too good. Ichibod / ichibod on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

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