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Return of alcohol service up in the air for some as airlines see spike in unruly passengers

Some airlines are postponing bringing back alcohol
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Posted at 4:48 PM, Jul 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-07 01:33:45-04

DENVER — Air travel is hitting pre-pandemic levels, but not everything is back to normal. In the midst of the busy summer travel season, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and American Airlines all recently announced they would limit or postpone bringing back alcohol service on most flights. Southwest blamed unruly passenger behavior, including an assault on one of its flight attendants.

Denver7 wanted to take a 360 look at how closing the in-flight bar could affect air travel for passengers and flight crews. Some feel that alcohol isn’t the cause of many of the recent problems and believe most flyers drink responsibly. Others said alcohol service is unnecessary, and in the worst cases, problematic.

Jeff Price, an aviation professor at MSU Denver and former assistant security director at Denver International Airport, said alcohol is often involved in cases of air rage. He said the addition of COVID-19 protocols to flights has made flight attendants’ jobs even harder, and alcohol can add to the problems.

“So now you have a political division going on... and now we’ve got to go deal with somebody who's being a jerk, occasionally sometimes they're being a jerk because they've had too much to drink,” Price said.

Kelley Pico worked as a flight attendant with United for 25 years. She said she and her colleagues had a color-coded system of keeping track of passengers who were drinking on board. They were labeled green, yellow and red.

“If it got to the red box, that means that they were slurring their speech, they were rude, and once in a while it would get out of hand and we would have to take care of it,” Pico said.

Pico supports getting rid of alcohol service on flights but said she does think it may lead to more people trying to bring their own alcohol on board, or drinking before the flight. FAA regulations prohibit the boarding of an intoxicated passenger.

Limiting alcohol service on planes might also be good from a health standpoint. Dr. Lindsay “Shelley” Forbes, a fellow at CU School of Medicine said drinking at an altitude higher than what you’re accustomed to can have a different effect on the body.

“One of the biggest ones is dehydration, and that can obviously make you feel a little bit crummy, headache, kind of fatigued,” Forbes said.

But for people who are nervous flyers, it’s worth asking if alcohol can actually be a good thing, if it helps calm them down. Cognitive behavioral psychologist Keri Johns said she doesn’t advice using alcohol as a treatment for any type of anxiety. But she said her patients who are afraid of flying admit they sometimes use substances.

“Sometimes having a drink is a really easy, accessible thing to do at the airport or on the plane,” Johns said.

Her practice, Cognitive Behavior Therapy Associates of Denver, uses virtual reality therapy to help fearful flyers. Patients undergoing the VR simulation are asked questions about their anxiety level at different points of the flight simulation.

“The virtual environment allows me to be able to manipulate it so we can make it a smooth, easy flight for their first experience, and then we can kind of bump it up and add some turbulence,” Johns said.

Ultimately, flyers who want alcohol will find a way to have a drink, or will choose an airline that is serving alcoholic beverages. Price doesn’t think airlines that suspend alcohol service will see a competitive disadvantage, but that remains to be seen. Some travelers at DIA, like Madi Kupec, said they would choose an airline that still offered alcohol.

“ I think flying is luxurious. I think it’s a privilege and having (alcohol) is a reward,” Kupec said.

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.