American and Southwest Are Both Holding off Serving Inflight Booze—Here's Why

This is why we can't have nice things

Plastic cup of red wine in the airplane
Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

Following a passenger assault on one of their flight attendants last week, Southwest Airlines announced that it has decided not to restore inflight alcohol service after all. Days later, American Airlines came to the same decision. Both airlines have cited the recent surge in unruly passenger numbers as the catalyst. At the same time, American noted additional concerns that serving alcohol may also result in passengers being less vigilant—and possibly more belligerent—about wearing masks while on board.

Indeed, the friendly skies have actually become more unfriendly during the pandemic. If you haven’t been keeping up with the viral videos of unruly passengers that have made rounds on the internet over the last year, a quick recap: passenger tantrums full of screaming, shoving, and even hitting.

“The repercussions for passengers who engage in unruly behavior can be substantial. They can be fined by the FAA or prosecuted on criminal charges,” the FAA website reads. “As part of the FAA’s Reauthorization Bill, the FAA can propose up to $35,000 per violation for unruly passenger cases. Previously, the maximum civil penalty per violation was $25,000.” They add that one incident can result in multiple violations.

As of May 25—less than six months into 2021—the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has already logged a total of 394 enforcement actions for unruly passengers, nearly 100 more than any full calendar year on record since 1995—though it said it had received over 2,500 reports of passenger misconduct already this year. Nearly 75 percent of the reports have involved mask noncompliance.

The recent altercation on Southwest Airlines—one that left the passenger-assaulted flight attendant with two fewer teeth and a trip to the hospital—is reportedly just one of the hundreds of unruly incidents the airline has seen in just a few short weeks. The passenger is now banned for life from flying Southwest and charged with a felony.

According to a letter to Southwest CEO Gary Kelley written by Lyn Montgomery, the airline’s president and lead negotiator for Transport Workers Union Local 556, shared 477 reported incidents of passenger misconduct within the five weeks between April 8 to May 15. "This unprecedented number of incidents has reached an intolerable level, with passenger non-compliance events also becoming more aggressive in nature,'' Montgomery wrote.

The letter continued to outline the hostile environment flight cabin crew are often subjected to on flights, calling out aggressive passengers and flyers who refuse to follow the current mask mandate. “It must be noted that Southwest Flight Attendants are doing all they can do to ensure compliance while creating a safe environment for all passengers and crew, but they also need the support and tools required to prevent injury to ourselves and others," she continued. "As alcohol sales are added back into this already volatile environment, you can surely understand our concern.”

TSA data shows that air travel has been picking up steadily. On the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, the agency screened 1,959,593 passengers—up nearly sixfold compared to 2020 and only down roughly 600,000 from 2019.

While American Airlines has stated we can expect dry flights until the mask mandate is lifted on Sept. 13, 2021, Southwest has yet to set a date to resume its onboard alcohol service.