Loopholes in the sky

cautionI travel a fair amount for work.  Not every day – and not even every week – but enough to maintain MVP status on my airline of choice (thanks, Alaska!).  And while I can’t say exactly when the change occurred, I’ve noticed something different on flights over the past year or so.  There’s a new bit of patter in the standard flight attendant safety announcement.

“Federal law prohibits passengers from consuming their own alcohol on the plane” – or some variation of this phrase – has been inserted into the safety announcement that we all know and love (and that most frequent fliers can recite by memory).  This is new.

On a recent flight, I found myself sitting in the very back row of the aircraft (not on Alaska – which unfortunately didn’t have a flight to my destination).  Directly across the aisle from me was a jump seat occupied by one of the flight attendants.  And, as someone who (i) spends more than his share of time thinking about syntax; (ii) occasionally finds it difficult to leave well enough alone; and (iii) spends his working hours trying to help people navigate (and occasionally find loopholes in) regulatory requirements, I asked her whether federal law also prohibited passengers from drinking other passengers’ alcohol during the flight.  In other words, could the people of a commercial flight circumvent this federal law requiring that passengers wishing to imbibe buy small bottles of hooch from the flight attendants if only a few Good Samaritans brought bottles for everyone to share (purchased after going through TSA – obviously) and simply passed them around (making sure that no such Samaritan drank from his or her own bottle)?

The flight attendant didn’t share my interest in this question – and she definitely didn’t seem to find it funny.  In fact, she gave me the kind of steely eyed stare that some airlines’ flight attendants might reserve for passengers who are about to be dragged off the plane.  In a fit of reasonable judgment, and after calculating just how long it was from the back of the plane to the front (i.e., the distance I might be dragged) I decided to drop the subject before I became the subject of viral cellular phone video-based reporting.

But curiosity persisted, and so I decided to do a bit of digging after escaping her jurisdiction.  Here is what I learned.

The applicable federal regulation is 14 CFR 121.575(a), which provides that “[n]o person may drink any alcoholic beverage aboard an aircraft unless the certificate holder operating the aircraft has served that beverage to him.”  So, in reality, federal law does not prevent passengers from consuming their own alcohol while on the plane – it actually prohibits passengers from consuming their own alcohol unless it has been served to them by the aircraft staff.  So possibly there is a new potential revenue stream here for airlines – corkage fees relative to customers bringing their own bottles on board.

But don’t get too excited just yet.  This same regulation also prohibits (i) airline staff from serving passengers who appear to be intoxicated and (ii) allowing anyone who appears to be intoxicated to board a commercial flight.  And other relevant regulations prohibit the carrying of alcohol over 140 proof onto any commercial flight.  So your chances of bringing a 1.5 liter bottle of slightly overproof Bombay Sapphire onto a commercial flight and making gin and tonics for your fellow passengers remain pretty slim.

Curiously, 14 CFR 121.575(a) has been unchanged since 2002 – and those amendments didn’t add this requirement.  So why the recent change in the safety announcement?  My guess is that we’re simply getting consistently less civil on our flights – engaging in ever-increasing bad behavior to the point where the airlines feel the need to remind us to behave.  As a case in point, see this report about passengers in 2015 who refused to stop drinking their own booze and caused an international flight to be returned to its home airport.  Those folks weren’t dragged from the plane, but I’m guessing that the other passengers on the flight wished they were.

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