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As alcohol returns to planes, some flight attendants fear an ‘unsafe’ workplace

Southwest is the latest airline to bring back booze to flights with unruly passengers onboard

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)
3 min

Southwest Airlines will bring alcohol service back to most flights starting Feb. 16, the airline said Thursday, ending nearly two years of dry operations and restoring an important source of revenue for the company. But a union representing the flight attendants who will be serving the drinks said it is “outraged” by a move that could exacerbate unruly behavior from passengers.

After suspending its full drink menu at the beginning of the pandemic, Southwest said, it will add beer, wine and liquor drinks, all priced between $6 and $7, on flights of 176 miles or longer. The airline will accept drink coupons that had been set to expire in 2020 or 2021 through Dec. 31. It will also start serving nonalcoholic options such as apple juice and hot cocoa.

“Customers have expressed a desire for more beverage options, so we’re delighted to restore additional on-board offerings as a part of the Southwest hospitality that our customers know and love,” Tony Roach, the company’s vice president of customer experience and customer relations, said in a statement.

Lyn Montgomery, president of Transport Workers Union Local 556, the union representing Southwest flight attendants, called the airline’s decision to resume alcohol sales “both unsafe and irresponsible” in an emailed statement.

Airline passengers are behaving worse than ever. One proposed solution? Ban alcohol.

According to unruly passenger data from the Federal Aviation Administration, the number of investigations the agency initiated spiked from 146 in 2019 and 183 in 2020 to 1,099 in 2021. Of the 5,981 unruly passenger reports the FAA recorded last year, 73 percent (4,290) involved mask-related incidents. The FAA said in August that alcohol played a role as well.

“We have adamantly and unequivocally informed management that resuming sales of alcohol while the mask mandate is in place has the great potential to increase customer noncompliance and misconduct issues,” Montgomery said.

The federal mask mandate for air travel and other public transit will remain in effect through March, per the Transportation Security Administration.

As more people start flying again, airlines are seeing a big jump in disruptive behavior and cases of unruly passengers. So why is it happening? (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

“Additionally, adding these sales on ultra-short-haul flights puts flight attendants’ safety and security at a level of risk that is unacceptable because of the possibility of injuries when flight attendants are serving drinks rather than being secure in jump seats upon descent,” Montgomery said. “Safety for all passengers and crew members on board is the number-one job of flight attendants, and it should be the number-one concern for Southwest Airlines, as well.”

Southwest declined to comment on TWU Local 556’s statement.

Flight attendants are learning to fight back against unruly passengers — just in case

Airlines throughout the industry paused alcohol sales on most flights as a means of reducing the spread of the coronavirus between staff and passengers. Delta and United previously brought alcohol sales back, while American Airlines has not yet restored the service for its main cabin, making it the only major U.S. carrier not to do so.

Last summer, Southwest postponed plans to bring alcohol sales back, citing “a recent uptick industry-wide of incidents in-flight involving disruptive passengers.” American Airlines made a similar move at the time.