Fifteen minutes prior to departure from Los Angeles International Airport, the cabin crew of a domestic flight awaits a last-minute passenger. All but one of the aircraft’s 200-plus seats is full.
“We were waiting for our last passenger,” said Shon, an LAX-based flight attendant, who asks that she be identified by first name only. Shon is all to familiar with the dramatic uptick in drunken passengers boarding flights at LAX since permissive alcohol policies were instituted at the facility during last year’s lockdowns.
“He runs in the door and seemingly enough, he looks normal,” she told Los Angeles. “He looks a little frantic because he wants to get to his seat. We greet him and he gives us the nod. Then he proceeds to about Row 23, at a window.”
Now seated, the passenger immediately decides a pillow would be nice. But rather than ask a flight attendant for help, this guy has other ideas.
“Once he sits down, he proceeds to grab the jacket of the person seated in front of him, balls it up and turns it into a pillow. Then he goes right to sleep.”
Ten minutes to take-off.
“We’re getting ready to do our safety checks,” recalled Shon. “We get a ding from the passenger in front of the now-snoozing man. The other passenger states that his jacket has been swiped.
“He says, ‘Could you please tell the gentleman behind me to please give me my jacket back. He’s using it as a pillow.”
“At this point, we’re still thinking he’s OK — maybe just tired.”
“We say, ‘Sir, he needs his jacket back,’ and so forth. He looks up, and…”
Suddenly the first passenger—pillow guy—unleashes an epic, high-powered, firehose-proportions onslaught of alcohol-fueled vomit. It goes everywhere. Shon, her colleagues and the man’s fellow passengers are struck silent for a few seconds,
“He looks up. The vomit is…it’s everywhere.”
Shon recalls her next, admittedly understated questions for the man:
“Sir, are you OK? Is everything all right with you?”
He’s slurring. But Shon makes out his words, which are, “I’ve had—I’ve had drinks. I took my last sips right before I got on the plane.”
The FAA requires intoxicated passengers who are in any way disruptive to be removed from an aircraft prior to departure. The man is at first resistant when Shon explains what’s going to happen next.
“I say, ‘Sir, we can’t let you fly like this. We have to get this space cleaned up; and we have to remove you from the plane.”
He eventually complies, and even appears remorseful.
“Now we have a disruption in service and in our cabin-area checks prior to departure, and the airline has a disruption in operations,” Shon explains, adding that such disruptions reverberate delays across the airline’s routes.
“We have to call maintenance and change out the seatbelts because that’s a bodily fluid and a biohazard.”
There’s also a putrid smell to eradicate before the flight can take off. Fortunately, airline maintenance crews have the know-how and the flight departs an hour later. The entire affair, Shon is convinced, was caused by one thing: to-go alcohol at LAX.
While correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, those who make their livings in the skies, have no doubt: Allowing people greater time and more spaces inside airport terminals to drink — all the way up to the gates at LAX — means these days they’re dealing with more overly intoxicated passengers in airplane seats than ever.
A succession of smartphone videos of physically violent passengers and the extreme measures needed to restrain them have captivated the pubic and media recently.
But according to cabin-crew members based at LAX as well as the president of the flight attendants union, it’s the daily grind of drunken, disorderly and otherwise belligerent passengers that wear airline employees down.
The apparent high frequency of anecdotal incidents at, and on flights to and from, LAX is probably due to the fact that the region’s biggest airport is also one of the world’s busiest. But that’s pretty much an academic distinction for those on the front lines of today’s decidedly less pleasant air-travel environment.
“It used to be that if a restaurant or a bar served you alcohol, as a patron with an alcoholic beverage, you couldn’t go beyond certain points in the airport while enjoying that alcohol,” says Shon.
So, what changed? Well-meaning authorities decided it would help airport bars, restaurants and concessioners who sell alcohol inside the terminals to weather the early days of last year’s travel restrictions by allowing the handful of essential travelers still flying at the time to port booze beyond the constraints of designated-drinking areas at LAX.
Similar changes were also made for bars and restaurants up and down California, outside of airports. Who hasn’t ordered or at least heard that they can now order intoxicating drinks to go from their favorite local bar or eatery that has a liquor or beer and wine license?
Flights have been so plagued by delays, disruptions and assaults perpetrated by booze-plied passengers on flights in an out of LAX as well as other major hubs of air travel in the US, that one of America’s deftest and most recognizable organized-labor leaders is thinking of proposing a corrective measure that could be called the mother of all unintended consequences regarding to-go cocktails, beer and wine at airports.
Sara Nelson, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO international president, says she’d like to see to-go and gate-side alcohol delivery at airports banned immediately. A report she delivered to Congress’s Homeland Security Committee during a hearing Tuesday calls for that and additional changes.
But as a means of fulfilling her number-one priority, protecting the safety of those who protect the flying public, what she’d really like to see is an outright, if only temporary, ban on alcohol sales at airports.
“Yes, I’m a union leader, but I’m a flight attendant-union leader. So on two fronts I’m charged with ensuring a safe workplace,” Nelson tells Los Angeles. “Safety is literally why [flight attendants] are on the plane. That’s my number-one job—because it doesn’t matter what your paycheck is if you don’t come home to your family.”
Nelson and her colleagues realize they’re up against a powerful force: lucrative alcohol sales at LAX and other airports.
“Alcohol has always been the biggest revenue source for concessions in the airport,” says Nelson. “Whenever you have a major economic driver, it makes it difficult to change anything.”
But, she says, what happened when the pandemic first hit has morphed into something entirely different than the policy’s original intent.
“It all came down at once; and a lot of the concessions closed,” Nelson recalls the early days of lockdowns in the aviation industry. “They were trying to figure out how to make money. At the same time, there was a sincere effort to try to put in place COVID policies that would limit the amount of interaction people had with one another. So just like stores and restaurants in your community, in the airport, they started to-go food and to-go alcohol.”
With lockdowns now ended and an expected 100-percent increase in travel expected this holiday season, airport bars and restaurants, don’t want to let go of all that new revenue. Alcohol to-go at LAX means booze all the way to airlines’ gate-side waiting areas. Signage encouraging booze consumption is evident throughout LAX: BEER WINE COCKTAILS — NOW CARRY YOUR FAVORITE BEVERAGES THROUGHOUT THE CONCOURSE” advises one.
LAX-based flight attendant Dante Harris says there’s unquestionably a correlation between the rise in incidents of passenger belligerence and the introduction of to-go booze as well as delivery of alcoholic beverages gate-side at the airport’s terminals. With 22 years’ experience under his belt, Harris has seen the social contract of the flying public devolve from the muted respect passengers held for each other post 9-11 to today’s thuggish free-for-all. AFA reports that 85 percent of its member flight attendants having experienced unruly passengers in just the first half of 2021. Fifty-eight percent of those incidents involved alcohol, according to data from a flight attendants union survey.
“It wasn’t until this pandemic that I began to see so many assaults and so much anger on board airplanes and in the airport,” Harris says. “People are frustrated with the masks and with the pandemic as an overall situation. Unfortunately, we are in a position where we have to ask the government to act to remind people you can’t act up 30,000 feet in the air.” .
Harris recalls a flight from Sydney to LAX during which a clearly intoxicated male passenger terrified a small child.
“It was the middle of the flight and the guy was sitting in a seat behind a child, a nine-year-old girl, and was yelling and screaming.”
But it was when the passenger began kicking the back of the little girl’s seat that the gloves came off and the cuffs went on.
“We do have zip-ties, but in this case it was actual handcuffs that we used,” Harris says.
But most on-board incidents never make the news because of flight attendants’ nearly Jedi-level powers of de-escalation, Harris explains.
“Experience is very prevalent in our industry. Half of the people I work with have been here twice as long as me. When it comes to de-escalation, we’re masters because we’ve seen it all. And, we’ve been trained for decades and decades in the art of de-escalation.”
Harris, Shon and Nelson believe the current era, challenging as it is, will resolve in a positive outcome. But, they say, the public can help sassure a smooth post-pandemic landing as that day approaches. Harris ] offers some advice for help-minded passengers.
“Start off the flight by establishing rapport,” he says. “Say hello to us. But don’t get involved in an incident unless and until your asked by a crew member to do so. You might inadvertently escalate the situation that we’re trying to de-escalate.” Harris would like to see the adoption of a national disruptive-passenger list that all airlines could access. Such a list would be separate from the government’s terrorism threat-driven “do-not-fly” list.
LAX officials were unwilling to answer specific questions about the airport’s policy on to-go and delivery alcohol at the airport. A spokesman did, however, provide the following statement:
“In regards to alcohol service at LAX, passengers are not allowed to take alcohol on the plane with them. This is communicated at time of purchase to the customer and monitored by gate agents at the time of boarding. Alcohol containers also are labeled for easy inspection. Many flights announce this requirement to passengers following boarding as well.”
The Federal Aviation Administration has ultimate authority regarding aviation and alcohol. However, its guidance is pretty slim—mostly aimed at banning passengers from consuming alcohol on flights other than alcohol provided by authorized airlines and crew members.
Not all aviation-booze news is bad, though.
“Even though the number of negative events haven’t been going down, what has gone up is the awareness of the public,” says Nelson. “The vast majority of the public are nice people who crave solidarity. More people are coming on board thanking us and offering us treats or chocolate and trying to be helpers.”
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