For those among us who like a tipple after takeoff, consider this a sign that the world is healing: Many airlines are resuming in-flight meals and alcohol service.
Early on in the pandemic, many airlines completely cut in-flight refreshment offerings (aside from perhaps a hasty water bottle delivery). Slowly but surely, airlines are reintroducing the amenity.
For example, in 2020, Southwest Airlines cut service completely on short flights and offered only water and a prepackaged snack on longer flights. In 2021, Southwest reintroduced a small selection of nonalcoholic drinks to all flights. It wasn’t until February 2022 that its complete pre-pandemic beverage menu returned, which included more soda and juice choices — plus alcoholic beverages for an additional cost.
Other airlines moved a bit more quickly. By July 2020, Delta Air Lines was offering beer cans and single-serve wine bottles. It wasn’t until March 2022 that it brought back hot meals for its Delta One and first class customers on some flights.
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Why did in-flight alcohol get the ax?
It’s hard to peg just one reason why alcohol and hot meals disappeared on flights during the COVID-19 era. Some say it eliminated unnecessary lingering in the aisles while flight attendants took everyone’s orders.
Others point to unprecedented rates of unruly passenger reports as the reason to remove alcohol in particular. In 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration initiated 1,099 investigations around unruly passengers. That’s up from just 183 in 2020, 149 in 2019 and 146 investigations in 2018. And not all bad behavior yields an investigation. In 2021, the FAA received reports of 4,290 mask-related incidents and 5,981 unruly passenger reports.
While it’s unclear how many of those cases involved alcohol (or how many more there might be if alcohol was accessible), flight attendants suggest a correlation.
An online survey of 5,000 flight attendants in summer 2021 by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, a union, showed that mask compliance and alcohol were among the most common factors in unruly passenger interactions. Additionally, 17% of respondents reported experiencing at least one physical incident with a passenger.
Some suspect the reason in-flight beverages got the boot comes down to money. Airlines have sought to cut costs by culling refreshments long before the pandemic. For instance, Frontier Airlines discontinued serving warm cookies on its flights back in 2012, stating that fresh cookie service “does not align with either the perception or financial reality of the ultra low-cost business model,” according to a memo obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Today, refreshments are available on Frontier flights for purchase, but there are no freebies.
These days, travelers say that while service has largely returned, it’s still been significantly reduced.
“Pre-COVID, United Airlines would always offer a drink before takeoff, and flight attendants would continue to offer drinks during the flight,” says David Decker, an insurance executive and United Million Miler member.
“Currently, the flight attendants make the rounds after the plane has reached cruising altitude, but you