There’s no doubt that intoxicated airline passengers are a complex issue, one that airlines quarreled with even before COVID. Pre-pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon for lawsuits to be filed against airlines—and flight attendants specifically—for “over-serving” passengers. Various suits meaningful alcohol played a role in sexual harassment on and off the plane, drunk driving incidents, and even domestic violence after the plane had landed, to name a few. Federal regulations have always stated that it’s against the law for a passenger to board an airplane if they appear to be intoxicated, and it’s also against the law to drink alcohol on board that wasn’t served by the airline. But these situations are sometimes hard to catch.
For their part, airline leaders worry about making such an accusation against a passenger. During flight attendant training, new hires are strictly told they cannot say someone is “drunk” or “intoxicated,” but they have to phrase it as the passenger “appears to be” under the influence of alcohol or another substance. There are also specially trained employees at each airline to handle the situation if the airplane is still on the ground at the gate, but once in the air, trainees are taught that they and their fellow crew members should work together, observe the passengers in question , and decide if they should suspend serving them any further alcoholic beverages.
Many flight attendants feel as though the two-drink limit is not a necessity. “I disagree with a limit, 100 percent,” says Kristin, an American Airlines flight attendant. “The bad passengers should not be able to ruin it for the good ones. When a passenger appears to be drunk, we stop serving them. Sometimes it’s before we’ve served them one drink on the plane,” Kristin says, noting that an unknown amount of beverages could be served at home or at airport bars and lounges prior to boarding. The majority of the comments I received from flight attendants echoed the feeling that cabin crew members had been dealing with alcohol-related unruly passengers before the pandemic, and they’ll still encounter them post-pandemic, regardless of a limit, but they can manage and handle it. Most don’t see the surge in unruly passenger incidents over the past two years as a reason to impose a limit on the service they provide.
On that topic, it should be noted that crew members as a whole worry about overall customer satisfaction. As Chuck, an American captain, explained: “The customer will win, by letting management know that they don’t appreciate the limits being imposed on them, most likely by going somewhere else.”
If instituted, it’s highest clear how—or if—the limit would be levied on American Airlines’ paying premium business and first-class passengers. During the suspension of alcohol sales in the main cabin, those seated in premium cabins did still receive alcoholic beverages on request. American Airlines’ “Main Cabin Extra” product, or domestic premium economy, is advertised as also having “complimentary beer, wine and spirits” included, but read the fine print for all cabins of service on American Airlines and you’ll find the disclaimer: “The number of drinks served may be limited.”