Southwest Airlines Moves Up Return Of Alcohol, Booze Is Back February 16

Southwest Airlines just pushed back the return of alcohol on board to “late in the first quarter maybe early in the second quarter” a week ago blaming virus spread. And now they’ve reversed course. Booze will be back on board February 16th.

Starting Feb. 16, Southwest will sell alcohol, including beer, wine, rum, tequila and vodka on flights at least 176 miles long. It is also said it will also serve tonic water, apple juice, Coke Zero, Dr. Pepper, hot tea and hot cocoa to current lineup of non-alcoholic beverages.

Suddenly the addition of vodka to orange juice no longer increases the R0 of Covid-19. Sadly this isn’t happening two days earlier or the LUV airline would be toasting to love.

Good news though Southwest is honoring free drink chits with 2020 and 2021 expiration dates. Here’s how you can still get free drinks on Southwest.

Back in the day of course free drink coupons didn’t used to expire at all and the change led to a class action lawsuit that paid out well for the attorneys.

Just prior to airline deregulation, when Southwest Airlines had to start competing with Texas International Airlines and Braniff offering cheap fares between Houston and Dellas, they started giving out “to go” bottles of alcohol to full fare customers. They became the largest liquor distributor in the state.

For many years Southwest Airlines offered free drinks inflight to all customers. They cut that back to offering free drinks only during key business travel times. And then in 1988 they eliminated free alcohol from their flights, but started giving coupons to frequent flyers.

Booze may be part of the airline’s DNA, stemming from Wild Turkey-drinking co-founder Herb Kelleher, but the airline isn’t as loose with the drinks as they once were.

Chase stopped giving out drink chits to their cardholders in 2016. Southwest no longer sends them out when you redeem award tickets, or on your birthday. There seemingly aren’t as many free drink holidays on the airline as there used to be. Nonetheless there’s little doubt customers will return to their earlier drinking ways once they’re able to do so.

This leaves American Airlines largely alone refusing to serve alcohol in coach. They’ve tied the return of alcohol to the economy cabin to the lifting of the federal mask mandate, which currently runs through March 18. Their view is that alcohol could exacerbate tensions in back, with most passenger incidents tied to enforcement of masks (and American flight attendants seem to be, on average, more confrontational over masks than at other airlines where they’ll tend to just write up noncompliant passengers rather than ejecting customers and delaying flights). On the other hand American is happy to let first class passengers drink.

The ban on inflight alcohol at American and Southwest had meant that passengers pre-gamed at an alarming rate. For its part American has lobbied the federal government and airports to limit to go booze.

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. It would be interesting to compare sales of alcoholic beverages at in-airport and near-airport restaurants & bars for the two time periods – before in-flight coach alcohol prohibitions, and during prohibition. If the thesis is correct (and I tend to think it would be), presumably there would be a big uptick, if you adjusted for lower pax / customer volume at such restaurants & bars during the prohibition / pandemic period. There’s a doctoral thesis in here somewhere for an enterprising grad student. Lol.

  2. Southwest has chosen not to serve alcohol at all. It’s a business decision. It has the freedom to make such a choice. And, if a passenger wants a drink that day, the person has the freedom to buy a drink in the terminal . . . to choose to fly on an airline that does serve alcohol.

    It’s not gaming anything. It’s the exercise of freedoms.

  3. What kind of revenue implications or profit margins do in-flight alcohol sales represent for airlines, I wonder ?

    “Southwest Airlines released its fourth-quarter earnings report Thursday and it shows the company had a net loss of $1.3 billion in 2021 or $2.15 loss per diluted share.”

    If I were a SWA shareholder I would want the company pushing and pulling on any profit lever it could find.

  4. @Reno Joe – “It’s not gaming anything. It’s the exercise of freedoms.” The only reference to gaming in the blog post was to “pre-gaming” – ie PAX drinking in advance of the flight. As to it being a “business decision” – yes, it is. And any business is of course free to make decisions, regardless of the consequences or implications. But the question at hand is whether its a good business decision or a bad one, right ?

  5. Karl,
    no airline made money excluding government aid in 2021 as a whole. Southwest made money on airline operations in the 4th quarter – which did not have government aid – and so did Alaska and Delta.
    Alcohol is insignificant in terms of revenue. It is more of a customer amenity; there are some people that want, maybe even need, alcohol to deal w/ flying. Other airlines are choices for those people. As Southwest’s average flight gets longer and longer, there will be more and more people that will not fly Southwest because of a lack of alcohol but that is probably still a small amount of the population.
    The biggest impact to Southwest’s profitability is that it continues to pay most operations employees including crew bonuses to fly as well as even more to pick up extra trips.

  6. “Southwest sees orange juice as same to drink, but the addition of vodka apparently spreads Covid.”

    I’m guessing the context might be that alcohol is generally consumed at a slower pace than non alcoholic beverages, and thus more unmasked time. I can easily spend an entire flight casually sipping a beer.

    But ya this is only cutting into their profit margins for SW and dont think continuing is warranted just as much as getting rid of mandatory masking on flights altogether.

  7. @ Tim Dunn – that makes sense. You wouldn’t intuitively expect alcohol sales to add much to an airline’s bottom line, so I suspect you’re right about that aspect. And I’m sure the airport and airport-near providers vendors of alcoholic beverages appreciate the boost to their own bottom lines occasioned by air travel alcohol prohibition for coach customers on those airlines which have not brought back alcohol sales. Still and all, if I were a shareholder of any of the airlines not presently capitalizing on even a modest profit opportunity in alcohol sales, I’d want them pouring once again in coach.

    @Luke – your point also makes sense to me, somewhat, but I imagine for most folks, an alcoholic beverage in-flight is a substitute for rather than in addition to a non-alcoholic beverage – especially considering the paucity of times (rarely more than once) that the beverage cart comes down the aisle. And idk whether PAX in general take longer (and therefore are unmasked longer) with alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages – that’s probably not universal. What is clear is that, regardless what’s in the cup, if someone doesn’t want to wear their mask, they are going to take a lonnnnggg time to finish the contents. Which brings to mind this point – recently Gary ran a set of posts about AA acceding to FA union requests to reduce cabin beverage service, supposedly for “safety reasons.” Additional to all the other reasons already advanced on this site for why the “safety motivation” on providing a second beverage is suspect (versus allowing FA more time to read or play games on their phones), consider this – once PAX realize they are getting a single beverage on AA flights, aren’t they more apt to buy super-sized drinks or bottles of beverages in the airport for on-board consumption ? And keep masks down longer while they enjoy those ? If the argument here is “mask down = danger” then this factor seemingly cuts against the safety efficacy of eliminating a second beverage cart trip down the aisle.

  8. Southwest Airlines knows the difference between orange juice and orange juice and vodka. Just the same as Covid knows the difference between a cocktail and a regular drink. However, people who are drinking a cocktail are going to drink it leisurely unmasked unlike when they consume an orange juice dumb ass.

  9. The problem(s) they have having on airlines these days isn’t the alcohol onboard it’s the pre-gaming (getting drunk) in the airport before the flight. It’s not rocket science.

  10. Talk about warped priorities in our culture. Alcohol causes exponentially more damage than covid could ever dream of doing to society in terms of long-term health care requirements and higher health insurance costs for everyone, the untold damage to families due to alcoholism and resulting deaths due to abuse and innocent deaths via drunk driving…etc..,etc., but if there’s a profit to be had from serving alcohol on flights – drink up!! Oh, but make sure you get that mask on in between sips. Wouldn’t want anyone to catch a covid cold or anything. Utter insanity.

  11. Also…..I am amused by all the recovered/recovering alcoholics commenting here chastising anyone who dare have a drink. You guys are worse than ex-smokers. Cheers!

  12. I wonder if Southwest executives know about something that hasn’t been publicly disclosed yet.

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