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 rise in inflight incidents has occurred while airlines have generally already kept alcohol out of the cabin. You have passengers “somewhat different than our normal clientele” in American CEO Doug Parker’s parlance. As I’ve written, “every airline’s passengers are Spirit Airlines passengers now” as there are so few business travelers to balance out leisure.
- And you have a whole lot of confrontations over masks – I even predicted the increased conflict over six months ago as more and more people gained immunity either from vaccination or prior infection but were still required to wear masks.
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.