Dry Skies Ahead

Some major U.S. airlines have restricted alcohol service during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the rules are not simple

Dry Skies Ahead
Delta recently announced it will offer single-serve wine bottles to customers in some seating areas. (David McNew/Getty Images)
Jul 1, 2020

If you have plans to get on a flight any time soon, a glass of wine might not be in the cards. Major airlines, including American, Delta, United and Southwest have made big adjustments to their alcohol service policies amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The changes are part of an effort to minimize passenger-employee interaction.

Nearly every airline has limited their in-flight food and beverage service in some way. Whether you can have a drink on your next flight will depend on your airline, seat and travel distance. (Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations state that, “No person may drink any alcoholic beverage aboard an aircraft unless the certificate holder operating the aircraft has served that beverage to him.”)

If you want a drink on American Airlines, it depends where you sit. First-class passengers on all flights can request alcoholic beverages, but they're only available to other seating sections on long-haul international flights. No matter where you're seated on the aircraft, snacks and meals are only served on long-haul international flights.

As for service on the ground, club members can still get a drink at American's lounges, some of which just reopened on June 22. When it comes to social distancing in the sky, the airline is not blocking off middle seats and announced this week it would be filling planes to full capacity again soon. (None of the airlines would comment.)

On Delta, it's all about mileage. After initially removing alcoholic beverage service on domestic or short-haul international flights in any seating section, the company announced this week that domestic first-class and Delta Comfort+ customers will begin to see complimentary beer and wine on any flight over 500 miles starting July 2. Passengers on these routes will also receive a bag with bottled water, snacks and hand sanitizer.

"Our goal is to serve all of our food and beverage offerings in the safest way possible⁠—both for our customers and employees," said Allison Ausband, Delta's senior vice president of in-flight service, in a statement. "We take pride in always listening to our customers, and we know beer and wine are the adult beverages our customers want most. These selections are the first step towards a normalized beverage offering while we continue to keep customer and crew safety at the center of everything we do."

On long-haul international flights, all cabins still receive meals and have a full selection of beverages⁠—including beer, wine and spirits. Delta has closed many of its Sky Club lounges, but those that are open still serve food, beverages and alcohol. The airline is blocking off its middle seats, capping plane capacity and boarding aircraft from back to front.

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Southwest is a largely domestic airline and has an open seating policy. So while having a first-class ticket or crossing the Atlantic may make a difference in drink service elsewhere, it won't on Southwest. As of May 22, the airline suspended its alcohol service on all flights. In-flight service includes canned water and a sealed bag of snacks for all flights over 250 miles. Southwest will keep its middle seats open through at least Sept. 30, but passengers can still sit next to someone they're traveling with.

United Airlines is not serving poured alcohol⁠—only sealed beverages and bottled water. The premium cabin receives snack bags on all flights, and meals on transcontinental and international flights. For other cabins, snack bags are served only on flights more than two hours and 20 minutes long and meals on international flights. United is not blocking middle seats or limiting its flight loads, but customers can change their flights for free.

As for other safety measures, all four airlines disinfect their aircrafts, have glass shields at airport service desks and provide masks for customers who don't bring their own. On all four airlines, face coverings are required for boarding and the duration of the flight, except to eat and drink, or if you have a medical condition. And while you might not be able to have a beer or cocktail, customers can still bring their own snacks and non-alcoholic drinks on board.

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