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No Booze Until 2022 On Southwest And American, But Not Every Airline Is Dry

The Federal Aviation Administration recently extended the COVID-19 mask mandate on flights through January 18, 2022. Southwest Airlines and American Airlines. Not coincidentally, Southwest Airlines joined American Airlines in extending the ‘pause’ on serving alcohol on board through January 2022.

But of the top six U.S. airlines, Southwest and American are the only two with a blanket ban on booze in coach. Southwest has only one class of service, but American is serving alcohol in First and Business Class.

Delta, United, Alaska and Jet Blue are all offering beer and wine for coach passengers. As an Alaska spokesperson put it, “We still serve alcohol onboard and don’t have any plans to change our current service levels.”

(Full disclosure: I own stock in Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and Jet Blue.)

While Jet Blue does not currently sell liquor onboard, “items for purchase including beer, wine, Eat Up snack boxes, pillows, blankets and earbuds on all domestic and Latin America & Caribbean flights.” Complimentary beer, wine and liquor is available on JetBlue’s new transatlantic service between New York-JFK and London Heathrow.

Whether specifically acknowledged or not, the ‘ban’ on coach class alcohol service on American and Southwest is based on friction with passengers over the mask mandate. Some 85% of flight attendants report dealing with unruly passengers.

One of the most horrific of these incidents occurred on Southwest. A passenger punched a flight attendant, knocking out two of her teeth. The FAA noted that so far in 2021, there have been a reported 3,889 incidents of ‘unruly passengers. Some 2,867, or 74%, occurred over what airlines characterize as ‘refusal to wear a mask.’

Obviously, a number of the passengers involved had consumed alcohol, although how many is unclear as much of the drinking would have occurred prior to the flight. (It is a Federal offense to try to sneak alcohol aboard a flight.)

“Our investigations show that alcohol often contributes to this unsafe behavior,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in August. “The FAA requests that airports work with their concessionaires to help avoid this.”

“With the mask mandate being extended to January 18, 2022, there are no current plans to bring back alcohol prior to January 2022,” according to a Southwest spokesperson.

American said “We haven’t established a specific date for the return of onboard alcohol in the main cabin of our aircrafts. We will continue to evaluate the situation and work closely with the union that represents our flight attendants, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, and medical experts on this process to determine when we will return to full service in the main cabin.”

For Southwest in particular, the continued ban, whether necessary or not, is a blow to their image as perhaps the leading U.S. leisure airline. The airline’s co-founder and industry ambassador, Herb Kelleher, was as well-known as a Wild Turkey drinker as Oscar Goodman, former mayor of Las Vegas (who I profiled for the Southwest Airline Spirit magazine) is known for his fondness for gin martinis.

The airline carried more total system passengers in 2018 than any other U.S. airline (163 million). Known for its low fares and vacation package, Southwest has long been known as a fun airline where you can start your vacation onboard as you flew to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, or other leisure destinations. The airline gave out free drink coupons as an annual benefit of membership in its Rapid Rewards program.

In the 1990’s into the 2000’s, Southwest 737-200 jets featured ‘lounge seating.’ Lounge seats, including a rear-facing group of three, could be found in the first and last rows, as well as around the overawing exits.

In the lounge seats, Southwest says families had pillow fights, business colleagues had impromptu meetings and strangers might get to know each other face to face over a cocktail, often paid for with a Rapid Rewards drink coupon. On January 17, 2005, the last 737-200 was retired, along with its aft-facing lounge seats, but Southwest retained its relaxed atmosphere.

But the drink meu through January 2022 encompasses orange juice, cranberry cocktail juice, ginger ale, seltzer water and tonic water. According to USA Today, ”Flight attendants flash a laminated card to passengers in each row as they approach and ask them to hold up one, two, three or four fingers to signify their choice and to enable them to keep their masks on when ordering.”

But despite the heightened tensions of COVID-19, not every airline implies passengers cannot be trusted with booze. A Delta Airlines spokesperson told us, “We have not paused alcohol service in premium cabins and relaunched alcohol sales in the main cabin this spring.”

United says its customers “in economy cabins can purchase beer, wine and hard seltzer on most domestic flights over 1 hour, using United’s contactless payment technology.”

United’s CEO Scott Kirby said , “I am firmly in the camp that business travel is going to return in full.” The airline is all set for those coveted business travelers, according to a spokesperson. “In our premium domestic cabins, beer, wine and hard seltzer are complimentary on most flights over 1 hour and are available upon request on flights under an hour.”

For travelers heading out to a long-dreamed of Hawaiian vacation, perhaps Hawaiian Airlines response was the most positive. “We lifted the suspension of alcohol service in our main cabin on July 15,” said a spokesperson. “Guests can enjoy a complimentary Koloa Rum Punch drink and purchase other assorted beverages. “

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