People Have Been Trying To Ban Alcohol On Planes Since The 1950s

Flight attendants union head Sara Nelson is calling for a federal ban on inflight alcohol.

American Airlines and Southwest have delayed the re-introduction of inflight alcohol, which was suspended during the pandemic (although American continues to serve booze up front). United, oddly, has agreed to put off serving alcohol in coach on flights less than 800 miles, unless the flight operates between two of their hubs. That’s especially odd because it’s during longer flights that a passenger might drink more and have a greater opportunity to become a problem.

Of course the call to ban alcohol isn’t about passenger behavior.

The call to ban on board alcohol isn’t new. It dates back to the mid-1950s, during the 84th Congress, when Senator Strom Thurmond introduced legislation that would end what he called “flying saloons.”

Thurmond served 48 years in the Senate. Prior to that he was Governor of South Carolina. And he ran for President in 1948 as a segregationist, actually winning four states.

I’m old enough to remember when Strom Thurmond was campaigning in his last election. In 1996 he had a stump speech that declared himself the pork candidate, “I can bring more money to South Carolina in the next 6 years than my opponent could in 60!” Yet without missing a beat he emphasized his support “for smaller government and term limits.”

Thurmond argued in front of the Senate for a complete ban on alcohol. He explained that he abstained from drinking, but that his reasons for wanting it banned for others inflight were several,

  • Safety. Thurmond contended that “the unregulated consumption of liquor by air line passengers is a compromise with safety” because “an intoxicated passenger [might] seize control of an aircraft while in flight or..distract the pilots from their duties so as to jeopardize many lives.”

  • Too much work for flight attendants. Just like Sara Nelson, Thurmond complained that alcohol service “places an unnecessary burden upon the flight crews who are charged with the safety and comfort of air line passengers.” Even then it was flight attendants at the forefront of seeking to ban alcohol, as Ms. Nelson does today.

    Thurmond continued, “Miss Peterson, the representative of the stewardesses association, has told me of several embarrassing incidents that have occurred on airplanes due to the consumption of liquor by passengers. …[Congress must] protect[..] the dignity of the fine young ladies who serve as stewardesses on these aircraft.”

  • Non-drinkers should have to be exposed to it. “[D]rinking in airplanes cannot be confined to club cars as on trains. In addition, there is the problem of children who accompany their parents and others on air flights. Moral decency impels us to exclude our children from barrooms and liquor stores. By the same token, our children should be protected from the ‘flying saloons’ which now exist..”

  • Drinking and transportation don’t mix. It’s like drinking and driving on steroids because “it takes a smaller quantity of alcohol to intoxicate at a high altitude” (though of course passengers aren’t flying the plane, and pilots don’t drink – they are our designated drivers).

He doubled down on his claim that offering alcohol inflight created a “stigma” for flight attendants “doubling as barmaids.” And he wanted to not just ban service of alcohol but also consumption in flight out of fear that passengers might bring their own.

Thurmond spent much of his life crusading against alcohol. In the late 1990s he introduced legislation to raise taxes on wine, which he blamed for “hypertension, breast cancer and birth defects” and also to give the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms increased power over advertising.

Thurmond said that a ban on inflight alcohol generated more constituent mail than “the so-called civil rights bill” and was “one of the most vital safety measures facing the Congress today” in 1957. Sixty four years later, we’re still here, legal segregation isn’t, and inflight alcohol service hasn’t been banned by force of law.

In later years Thurmond’s Chief of Staff was known informally as “the 101st Senator” because he was effectively exercising Thurmond’s powers. Two years before the end of his last term he considered bequeathing his Senate seat to his second ex-wife because he thought that would make her happy.

Abstaining from alcohol, of course, didn’t prevent Strom Thurmond from behaving badly. He was known for inappropriately touching women throughout his career.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Well, that would suck. Then I’d have to sneak a smoke AND a drink in the lavatory.


  2. A. It’s clear Strom Thurmond wanted to ban alcohol for religious reasons, but like most politicians, he hides the ball behind the real reason he wants to do anything. Much like everything is now “infrastructure”, which is really just code for shoveling money to favored groups.

    B. Yes, Thurmond was a product of his time. He’s what we politely refer to as a “character”. But nice smear job on listing all his sins that have nothing to do with the story. You earn your woke points for the day. But next time you write about Hawaii, just to prove you’re not a partisan hack, won’t you please refer to the airport in Honolulu as Rapist International? Sucky politicians exist across the political spectrum.

  3. You want to ban alcohol when the President wants to buy us all a free beer?
    Trump didn’t drink alcohol, so Biden, naturally being the antiTrump, wants us all drinking alcohol after getting vaccinated. Makes sense – after a few drinks I’m going to forget how his record inflation is screwing me.

  4. @alohadavekennedy
    Boy are you a Chump Fool Crybaby just like your hero.
    I’ll see you at Chump’s Inauguration party in August.

  5. Strom Thurmond was not only a professed racist, but he was an all around terrible person who held hurtful ideas and harmed so many people. The fact that he ran for President at age 46 in the 1940’s yet remained in the senate for another 55 years should tell you everything you need to know about what’s wrong with America’s political system.

    Strom Thurmond opposing alcohol on planes should be reason enough for drinking to be a requirement to fly in the USA.

  6. You have dozens of people stuck closely together inside a metal tube flying through the sky. Some of those people inevitably have bad judgment. Why would alcohol be a good idea? I’ve been on too many planes where it’s clearly been a bad idea. Why do people who want to drink and behave badly take precedence?

  7. @Jerry – Well said. It’s stunning that such a vitriolic hatemonger could get reelected so many times while exemplifying everything wrong with our country.

  8. Speaking of the 50s, or in this case the 60s, I recently went through my deceased father’s correspondence from that era to decide what to keep or toss out. There’s some interesting travel related stuff as he spent a lot of time on the road and in the air. One item was a letter to an airline questioning their alcohol policy, so yes it’s been a topic for discussion for quite a while.

    In his case the stewardesses came through the plane for drink orders first, served those, then finally started the meal service. But it was a short flight, and they quit serving before he got his food. A rare person who really relished airline food and always would report to the kids what he got, he was quite disappointed as he wrote to ask them to put priority on getting everyone served their meal.

  9. @alohadavekennedy
    Sorry Davey, i’m a Republican smart enough not to put up with Chump Fools especially the No. 1
    fool. However I’m now a proud independent.
    Surely, you believe Chump has no shame. Ha!Ha!Ha!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    You’re a dam Chump Fool. Ha!Ha!Ha!
    Keep drinking that Chump Kool-Aid Ja!Ja!Ja!

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