Should Airlines Offer Paid Wine Choices In First Class?

I don’t want to drink the swill that many airlines serve on board, and would love an option to pay for something nicer. I’m not sure it would work, though, as a business proposition because of the cost to source a niche product, taking up scarce galley space, when the market for this might be limited.

Airlines might also worry that a paid upcharge in a premium cabin might cheapen the experience. On the other hand they don’t seem to worry that serving cheap wines cheapens the experience! So perhaps they should give it a go as a test to improve the product while generating incremental revenue as well?

Delta Air Lines probably has the best paid wine program in its Sky Clubs though it recently devalued paying for those wines in SkyMiles. United has a paid premium wine program in its clubs, and so does American.

All three airlines offer paid upgrade options for club members and those with access through the class of service, yet none offer paid upgrade options in the air for premium class customers. And all largely offer swill in their domestic first class cabins, and while they’re somewhat better in international business class the options aren’t great.

  • They don’t offer a truly premium feel
  • And don’t serve the kinds of wines you’ll find on international competitors.

Delta has even been caught serving $4 champagne in international business class.

To be sure not every airline offers bad wine on board! Flying Qatar Airways first class I had a glass of Taittinger Comptes de Champange in first class, before heading back to the business class bar for a glass of Krug.

But how nice would it be to enjoy a class of Penfolds RWT Shiraz on a flight out of Australia, like I’ve had on Singapore Airlines, but in business class or even economy? Or perhaps a 2005 Pichon-Lalande, which I’ve also enjoyed from Singapore’s first class cellars or a Chateau Cos d’Estournel, Saint-Estephe? I should disclose that I have a preference for big and complex French Bordeaux blends and Burgundies, for California and Australia wines generally, and am somewhat averse to acidic and to overly tannic wines. That influences my take on what works well in a lounge and in-flight.

God Save The Points argues that airlines should offer a paid upgrade option for passengers in premium cabins to drink better wines than airlines will serve at the price bundled with a ticket.

Galley space is highly constrained on narrowbodies, it would be difficult to offer more than a bottle or two for upsell, and airlines may not find the juice here to be worth the squeeze. On the other hand galley space is more available on widebodies, and this could be an option for international long haul. So why don’t U.S. carriers do it?

  • The idea likely overrates consumer’s willingness to pay for better wine, especially at altitude where your ability to taste changes (Singapore Airlines has a pressurized room for wine tasting on the ground to simulate the cabin experience).

  • Put another way,, the idea may underrate consumer’s willingness to drink the swill that airlines serve today. When faced with a choice of bad wines, I skip the wine and might enjoy a cocktail (or just a glass of water).

  • And this could create the hotel minibar problem, where the option is expensive to service and a money loser despite high prices.

  • Given the constraints of space, cost to source and serve a limited market item, the price could be higher than customers might expect and would be willing to pay.

About four years ago I sat next to a passenger on a Dallas Fort-Worth – Austin flight who had brought her complimentary wine from the Admirals Club on board in a ‘to go’ cup. She wound up in an altercation with the flight attendant who insisted she give it up prior to takeoff, and she could have a new glass of wine once we were in the air. It ended up with a passenger inflight disturbance report.

I have to remind myself at times that much of the wine that’s being served is being served to this passenger, or Cort McCown’s character Quint in 1987’s Can’t Buy Me Love trying to impress a girl with his wine knowledge.

Quint: I’ve learned to appreciate the finer things in life. I even travel with my own wine. You never know the quality you may encounter at a soiree.

Fran: [smells the wine and coughs] Very classy.

Quint: [takes a swig out of the wine bottle] Mm-hmm. I’m into class. It’s my new thing.

Given this customer, and that it’s expensive enough to source wines for an airport location and bring them through security, and storage is at a premium inside of an airport, these problems are only magnified in an aircraft cabin, the idea may be both challenging and low value to an airline. But I’d still personally love to see it!

One idea that God Save The Points offers for airlines with an international first class product is to offer bottles already being sourced and loaded for first class to passengers in other cabins for a fee. This solves some logistical problems while creating others, such as quantities to board, whether to store it all in first class and having crew running between cabins, or truly just to serve the wines you’re buying anyway in other cabins.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »

Comments

  1. @Gary “Andre” is NOT Champagne. It is a domestic bulk wine carbonated with CO2 lkike a fizzy drink.

  2. An interesting concept . Perhaps a pre-order service for premium passengers that accompanies their meal selection email . I do love the Sky Club premium liquor options – especially paying with miles . That being said , Delta really needs to “up its game “ in terms of the Sky Club complimentary liquor offered to premium class passengers . The current offerings are a disgrace . You can’t expect folks to pay for Delta One and serve them garbage in the Sky Club . This is one area where Delta lags as United has (non pandemic ) Polaris lounges and AA has Flagship lounges .

  3. To answer your title: No, it’s a slippery slope!

    Beverages consumed by passengers in F should be included.

    Please don’t give the airlines any new ideas to shaft the consumer!

  4. Looks like the Andre was a pre-departure beverage, which are usually low quality. Why is that? Some tax reason about opening the bottle whilst still on the ground? Since they’ve gotten rid of PDBs, now a moot point.

    Anyway, you don’t see UA too concerned about the quality of their wines.

  5. Paid alcohol when spending $6-10K on a r/t? Screw that. Maybe the airlines need to up their game?

  6. Maybe airlines could offset cost and avoid being in the red (if you will) by getting premium wines to sponsor such a program, either paid or free special offerings, as a way to raise their profile among high-value customers?

    Problems…

    1. Not all FC passengers are high-value per se (sometimes they’re Merlot class than coach passengers) so would it drive sales?

    2. The wine may not taste as great in the air as on the ground, diluting (so to speak) the participating wines’ brand

    3.Airplane wines’ bad reputation could sully the participating brands’ reputation (ie if it’s being served on a plane, how good can it be?)

    4. More work for FAs so the unions would be all whiny (so to speak)

  7. The real problem is that only a few pax, like Gary, really care. And those who do care have wildly varying taste in wine. That is why there are so many different labels and blends for wine.

    I may or may not like Gary’s choices in wine. Gary may not like what we like. My wife and I are partial to New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs – we even spent 4 days chasing around Marlborough at various “cellar doors”. This is the the basic issue -pleasing enough customers at any attainable price. And we will never go back to pre-9/11 rules for carry on liquids.

    Chacun a son gout.

  8. Bad idea Gary, bad Idea!! Yet another excuse for the airlines to charge you for an ancillary purchase in first class that it’s supposed to be for free!! There goes the premium quality down the drain!!

  9. @William: Issues 2 and 3 are solvable (and solved) by prior tastings by a qualified member of staff, either at cruising altitude or a simulation thereof (c.f. Singapore Airlines).

    I am not sure what you mean in point 1. I love merlot. Petrus is a very enjoyable quaff (although a little heavy at breakfast).

    In case you were alluding to something you heard in ‘Sideways’, remember, Miles stole from his mother.

  10. In theory, it should be possible for airlines to offer premium cabin customers a wine list before flight and have them pre-select what they want, so that is loaded onboard. That would actually add to the experience, as people could then research the wines before they go. And airlines wouldn’t be carrying around wine they weren’t going to serve. They do this with meals, why not wine? Charging or not charging is a different issue, but preflight wine selection could be seen as a perk.

    Two, wineries are pretty adaptable, there probably isn’t any reason they couldn’t develop and/or select from their existing wines for tasting at altitude. And providing a follow-up card or invitation to a free tasting at the winery is a promo small wineries may jump at.

    Three, I’m pretty good at wines, but I never pick my own wine while eating at a good restaurant – that’s what sommeliers and chefs are for. They know what they have in stock and they know what the dish tastes like, so they know what works best together. There are great wines that absolutely should not be consumed with certain dishes, there are lesser wines that absolutely do work with the same dish. No matter how good you claim to be, short of being trained and having an encyclopedic knowledge of wine, there’s no way you can look at a random wine list and know what to pick on the fly. Master sommeliers – yes. You – no. Airlines claim to have sommeliers and chefs on staff, there is absolutely no reason they can’t offer wine pairings for their food and give you a choice of say three recommended wines for each menu.

  11. @L3 As I’m sure you are aware, but most people are not, in “Sideways”, the inside joke about merlot is that Miles’ prized bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc is a merlot blend, despite his supposed aversion to merlot.

    FWIW, if you gave me a bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc (currently $5000/btl), I would happily trade it for however many cases of decent high grade wines I could get from you and enjoy that over years and years vs one dinner. At a certain price point, you’re just trying to impress people, you’re not really tasting anything better. It’s a bit like lighting a cigar with a $100 bill.

  12. @C_M: “In theory, it should be possible for airlines to offer premium cabin customers a wine list before flight and have them pre-select what they want, ”

    That is the future. Extreme customization. Since everybody sells the same ‘stuff’ this will become the defensible way to compete. The enabler is better logistics systems.

  13. Logistics is boring. But it is how every upstart wins, from the US Army in WWII to UPS to FedEx to Southwest to Walmart to Amazon. It’s all about logistics.

  14. Domestic travel is not a flying restaurant. People should expect a comfortable flight, not a Michelin star meal with wine pairings. Maybe instead of upselling wines they should teach FAs to clean the bathrooms.

  15. @L3, it was just a wine pun I uncorked that didn’t really work (Merlot = more low) – I have no opinions either way on Merlot

  16. If inferior wine is a concern, selecting the right airline would be an obvious solution. Even in cattle class AF serves passable wines. In B/C it’s far better and in F, it’s never disappointing.
    BTW, Delta serves passable reds in F and C+
    But charging for good wine which is still subjective? No thanks

  17. This is an insane idea. If the ‘quality’ of a glass of wine with your meal is so important, just forego it and wait until you reach your destination. It’s quite well documented that your taste buds are affected by the altitude, so what’s the big deal? I get such a charge out of all the wine snobbery going on, such fuss made over something so unimportant on a plane ride.

  18. DELTA is offering Duckhorn cabernet on SFO domestic transcons – $60 a bottle well above typical business class fare, along with a couple others in that range

    It can be done and probably involves some marketing arrangement

    Air France and Qatar always have at least1-2 very good wine options in business – first class level on other carriers

  19. So far no one has mentioned the temperature problem. Among all of the other problems mentioned, wine must be served at the proper temperature to get the taste and smell you are paying for. If an airline asks a first class passenger to pay some ridiculous mark up on an already expensive wine, it better be served at the right temperature and in the right way. That’s what I’d want if I were a wine connoisseur (I’m not). Airlines and air crews can’t do it consistently. They don’t even have the right glasses (paper or plastic?) Wine is not a core business for airlines. They should spend their time and resources elsewhere on projects that provide a better return for all passengers and the airline.

  20. The quality of wine served in a premium TATL AA cabin is a discussion for another day, when we are served the wine in glass and not plastic or paper. JFK-ATH this week in J on AA and I will bring my own glass, thank you.

  21. Champagne selection in transoceanic F is equally as important as seat design for me. This is why I never book domestic carriers for these flights.

  22. @Yuppers look again, it’s the original spelling from the writer.
    Who, by the way, is claiming to know good wines & champagnes yet can’t spell the names correctly.
    Sheesh …

  23. WOW! Just WOW. And if you continue to go to a Mexican food restaurant and order Chinese food . . . you will be disappointed. Suggest you purchase a Falcon 900EX and stock it as you please. Too expensive Gary? There are several on the south side of the field that you can charter. It’s truly First Class travel.

  24. Multiple thoughts here, based upon my 50+ years in the California and International wine trade…

    @L3 —>. In the FWIW Dept., André is not Champagne, as it does not come from there. Furthermore, the technique used for making André is not the méthode traditionelle (aka méthode champagne). HOWEVER, it is most decidedly *not* carbonated! It is a sparkling wine produced utilizing the Charmat process (aka cave close). Sparkling wines require a second fermentation, whereas a carbonated wine is only fermented one and then injected with CO2 (think water and a Sodastream). There is a huge difference.

    @Gary —> I remember, back in the 1960s, the first class red offered on TWA was Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon¹, a wine which (at the time) carried a retail price of $3.50! Certainly times have changed. You now have some airlines utilizing Master Sommeliers (MS) to oversee wine selections, and — as you point out — pressurized rooms to more accurately taste the wines the way they will taste at altitude.

    The immediate problem I can see is that having a wine cellar in the sky, even on a widebody, is space. How many selections are enough? And what if you have someone who doesn’t like _____________ (insert wine type here), will they have to settle for the (now) seemingly pedestrian “free” wine, which will immediately take on an inferior image? After all, if it weren’t inferior, why would the airline feel “compelled” to offer something better???

    BTW, I know it’s nothing more than personal palate preference, but I’d rather have the Krug mv Brut Grand Cuvée over the Taittinger Comes de Champagne. I love both, but the Krug is simply more to my taste. (FWIW, the avg. price for the Taittinger is $199; the Krug, $211. ;^)

    _______________
    ¹ And the airline specified that the winery bottled their Cab in SCREW-CAPPED bottles — apparently TWA felt that operating corkscrews was beyond the capability of the FAs.

  25. @Jason Brandt Lewis : The important point about Andre is that it is a fraud based on an undeserved grandfather clause in the US EU proprietary names agreements.

    $3.50 in the 1960s was a premium price! And Louis Martini was a coveted Napa winemaker. Remember, Ch. Margaux was < $10 back then.

    Screw caps make a lot of sense in an airliner environment. It has nothing to do with corkscrew skills. Most airlines now mandate them, based on productivity.

    And its still "Comtes de Champagne", not Comes de…

  26. @Jason Brandt Lewis – I don’t believe screwcaps for wine were a thing in the 1960s. The serious development began in the early 1970s and airline bottlings went screwcap circa 1978. (I had to look this up and found a wonderful writeup on the development of the Stelvin screwcap.)

    I do have an intact bottle of Lancer’s rose I was given on an Ozark flight in 1973, (I was 11, my brother was 7, but we got the wine baskets, complete with wine.) The top was sealed with some sort of metal foil seal and a ring is attached for you to open the bottle by ripping the seal. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen the bottle, but last I saw it, it was still mostly full, despite being nearly 50 years old.

  27. @C_M —>. Having worked at Louis M. Martini Winery, I’ve seen the screw capped bottles. Screwcaps have been around virtually forever. While attending UC Davis, I had a 1937 French Colombard out of the Davis wine library that was sealed with a screw cap. California was using screw caps as closures on jug wines since the 1930s.

    Lancer’s has never used screw caps. In full-sized (750ml) bottles, underneath those “pull tabs” used to remove the foil were wine corks. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 187ml bottle of Lancer’s Rosé; they might have just used the pull-tabs if the seal was tight enough/

    @L3 —> We can argue about whether or not “The important point about Andre is that it is a fraud based on an undeserved grandfather clause in the US EU proprietary names agreements.” Just to be clear, I *agree* with you that semi-generic names (such as “Burgundy,” “Chablis,” and “Champagne”) have NO place on US wine labels, but it can’t really be a *fraud* if the name is used legally under said grandfather clause…

    As far as pricing is concerned — yes, Louis Martini was indeed a premium California Cabernet Sauvignon back then. Château Margaux — along with the other 1st growths — carried a retail price here in California for the 1961 vintage of $3.75 per bottle. (Lafite was $4.50.) For the 1970 vintage, the price had risen to $19.95 1970 Louis M. Martini “regular” Cabernet was $3.50, while their Special Selection was $8.00.

  28. @Jason Brandt Lewis: ” but it can’t really be a *fraud* if the name is used legally under said grandfather clause…”

    It is certainly a fraud. The law does not define “Fraud”, it uses the term to describe things that are, also , unlawful.

    Google “definition of fraud”

  29. @Jason Brandt Lewis – I will have to defer to your expertise on Martini’s history with screwcaps. I can’t imagine they were too readily accepted, however, as even when the Stelvin came along, which actually works, people wouldn’t think they were for anything other than low-grade wines. I wonder if Martini’s use of them helped deteriorate the winery’s image, which as you point out, at one time was very high.

    It makes sense that there would be screwcaps on jug wine, as I don’t think they intended for someone to drink the whole thing. Of course, that’s where selling jug wine under your own label quickly destroys any image you have of being a quality product.

    As far as the Lancer’s 187ml bottle goes (and kudos for knowing that), yes, there was no cork. My mother did open hers during the flight and no corkscrew was required.

  30. I do not fly business or first class when it is available for the foos or liquor. A meal and liquor are not important. I do it to relax and sleep on overnight flights. I would wish that they can get over the service quickly to reduce the noise. Finally would the flight attendants try to remain quiet. I am not interested in their family life or how the airlines are treating them. I am interested in sleeping so

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.