Reality Check: Our Troubling Embrace of Air Travel and Alcohol

When Britain’s Aviation minister recently signaled at a potential crackdown on alcohol sales at airports, the widely understood goal was to reduce the growing incidence of drunk passengers.  But with frightening stories of liquor also infiltrating the cockpit continuing to stack up, it is increasingly clear that passengers aren’t the only ones falling victim to an oddly cozy association between drinking and flying.  The most recent example—two United Airlines pilots arrested in late August for attempting to drunkenly fly 141 people from Scotland to New Jersey—is just the latest drop in an already brimming barrel of evidence about the need to rethink our worrisome cultural comfort with flying high as a double entendre. 

With alcohol-fueled rage affecting as many as an estimated fifty flights per day worldwide, and with pilots frequently unable to stay dry themselves, it’s past time that we take a hard look at why drinking has become so dangerously intertwined with the ecosystem of modern air travel.  And intertwined it is. In fact, for anyone who might be trying to avoid the temptation of alcohol while traveling, I have two words: hard work. Paling in ubiquity, you’ll dodge raindrops in Seattle and pigeons in New York with a fraction of the thought or effort needed to slip through the crosshairs of booze on that next jaunt to Phoenix.  

Although it is broadly true in our society that alcohol now enjoys an environmental omnipresence once reserved for hoary concepts like breathable air, its especially bulging footprint in the travel industry seems to be redrawn—outward—with each passing year and every airport renovation. 

Terminals now overflow with more drinking options than ever, catering to “wine fans, whiskey buffs, and everything in between,” while airlines are enjoying boosts to their profitability by pushing drinks—both literally and figuratively—up and down the aisle.  Newspapers, magazines and websites devote space to cataloguing the best places to drink before or after a flight, further normalizing the idea that the only way to “survive” something as truly “awful” as a layover is by downing some cocktails.  Taken together, the visible nexus between flying and alcohol has never seemed so patently, troublingly snug.

Why care?  Well, the risks posed by drunk flyers and impaired pilots alone should reasonably be enough to engender something other than our dead-eyed acquiescence to the ever-blurring lines between keggers and coach, binging and boarding.  If not, there are other sobering and compelling grounds to stop and examine the dimensions of this phenomenon. 

First off, it is estimated that approximately ten percent of Americans report being in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction, and that another seven percent or so currently have a drinking problem.  Round up for the several million additional people who engage in risky, binge drinking patterns that could easily lead to a diagnosable drinking problem, and we’re easily talking about 20% of the adult population who would be well-served by traveling through a less aggressively spirited gateway to their destination.  In fact, in the years I spent counseling addicted attorneys and judges about how to get and stay sober, it was no coincidence that a commonly-expressed fear about returning to work was the potential exposure to that hot zone of alcohol otherwise known as flying.

But those are just the slam-dunks, the no-brainers.  What about those people who drink socially, or moderately, you say?  There’s an argument that they, too, might want to pause and evaluate the subtle and not-so-subtle ways they’re being nudged to tilt one back en route.  Ever notice the tantalizing pictures of alcohol now lining many airline jetways, priming passengers’ thirsts as they filter towards what they are usually expecting to be a stressful and uncomfortable couple of hours?  That’s after they’ve walked past more places to buy alcohol than coffee or books.  Through thoughtfully constructed environments and carefully orchestrated behavioral cues that encourage us to drink as part of the routine travel experience, it’s not a stretch to say that air travel is actively contributing to a major public health problem.

We’ve long known that alcohol was the fourth leading cause of preventable death overall, and that one in ten deaths among working-aged adults are due to excessive alcohol consumption, but earlier this year, we got a grim warning specifically about the cancer risks of alcohol for everyone, and not just those who lack the capacity for moderation.  Analyzing the results of ten years of research from various, well-regarded cancer research organizations, the author of that warning concluded that alcohol is estimated to have caused approximately half a million deaths from cancer in 2012 alone, and that “Promotion of health benefits from drinking at moderate levels is seen increasingly as disingenuous or irrelevant in comparison to the increase in risk of a range of cancers.”  

Unruly passengers, drunk pilots and profit-driven prompting towards unhealthy lifestyle choices? Maybe the skies aren’t so friendly after all.  While removing alcohol completely from air travel is neither warranted nor realistic, some rational untangling of the two couldn’t hurt.

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