Alcohol on Long-Haul Flights: How Many Refills Is it Reasonable to Ask For?

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by Annabel Fenwick Elliott, The Telegraph, May 18, 2018

Long-haul flights are one of the few situations in which it's socially acceptable to day-drink. It's been part of the culture since the golden days of flying and is arguably, for this writer anyway, a deeply ingrained ritual that eases the discomfort of being strapped to a narrow chair for a 10 or 12-hour slog.

But how many drinks make for a reasonable number over the course of a flight? And is it true that we get drunker faster at 37,000 feet? Telegraph Travel spoke to a number of airlines, an etiquette expert, a doctor and an anonymous flight attendant in order to investigate the topic.

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Is there a set limit on the number allowed?

No. Technically, on most airlines at least, it's an open bar that's there for (almost) the duration of the flight.

"Alcohol is included and can be requested at any time when the drinks service is open. As long as the customer is not disturbing other passengers or engaging in anti-social behaviour, this service is available," a spokesperson for Air France told us, a sentiment echoed by Virgin Atlantic, BA and Lufthansa.

OK, but how many drinks is acceptable?

This depends on who you ask, of course. Lufthansa told us: "The majority of our passengers do not drink alcoholic beverages on board." I'm highly skeptical.

We turned to our own travel department to beg the question. "Four or five: a few beers, a couple of glasses of wine and a whisky," one said.

"One to two glasses of wine pre-boarding, one or two more or a gin and tonic upon boarding, and another glass or two with my meal," another said.

"A couple of G&Ts and a couple of wines," another declared.

And from our digital travel editor Oliver Smith: "I always find three mini bottles of red is a good number, especially if you fancy nodding off for a few hours.  

"Once, however, as an excitable student on a flight to South America, I had four or five. I then popped into the galley to procure another, but the stewardess sent me back to my seat empty handed. 'I think you've had enough,' I was told in no uncertain terms."

Over on the sensible side of the fence, three of our travel experts don’t drink at all on flights - but one makes sure to pocket a mini wine bottle or two, to use in cooking back home.

Finally, we asked two etiquette advisors. "A couple of drinks is fine," Jo Bryant told us.

"Three drinks on a long-haul flight is more than enough," William Hanson says.

Verdict? Anywhere between two and four alcoholic beverages seems to be the sweet spot.

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Why do airlines serve free alcohol?

It is strange when you think about it, given the ever-creative ways airlines dream up ways to make more money on little extras, that unlimited free alcohol is still served on almost all long-haul flights - especially given how sizable the profit margins could be.

The simple answer is not that it’s advantageous to cabin crew for us all to be tranquilized, as the legend goes, but that putting up a booze paywall on lengthy flights just wouldn’t be tolerated. Look what happened recently when United Airlines attempted to do away with tomato juice: it triggered an uproar and they quickly performed a u-turn.

How do I blag more top-ups from the flight attendant?

We turned to travel blogger Gilbert Ott for this, who takes more than 100 flights a year.

"Flight crews generally want everyone to have a great time and realise travel is exciting, but will always avoid the first sign of trouble. Patience and good manners can go a long way.

"A snappy lout who smells like Jim Beam is going to get cut off before the polite person who takes their headphones off and looks a crew member in the eye."

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He adds: "Don't forget to get up and walk around every few hours. It can be hard to judge your drunkenness when you're just sitting down."

Can I ask for alcohol during breakfast?

As the end of a long flight starts to look imminent, it's usually time for the tea and coffee to come around. But there's often someone on board who'd rather a bloody mary.

Is it rude to ask for one, considering the flight attendant will have to abandon the cart and mix one up for you?

According to former BA flight attendant Andy Sparrow, it’s the most irritating drink to prepare.

“It was the order we dreaded,” he told Telegraph Travel last year. “It takes an age to sort out all the trimmings, and it’s infectious. As soon as one person asks for one, half the cabin fancy their own.”

So we can indeed have booze with breakfast. Although Lufthansa regard this as being "unusual".

How do the cabin crew judge your intoxication levels?

The same way anyone would: slurring, swaying, giggling all being red flags. But also, according to a flight attendant we spoke to, they watch for passengers who go to the bathroom more often than normal, or who switch between galleys when they ask for more, assuming the staff at both don't share notes.

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This trick only serves to draw attention to yourself, apparently.

To assess whether or not to serve passengers more alcohol, many airlines use the "traffic-light" code. Mellow and affable behaviour will put you into the green category, getting more loud and animated puts you in yellow - at which point a flight attendant will clock you and possibly offer you some water - and red means it's cut-off time.

Does the altitude really make you more drunk?

According to the UK's flight regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the low air pressure associated with flying effectively thins the blood and theoretically strengthens the effects of alcohol.

Some dispute this. We asked our go-to medical source, Dr Nick Knight, who explained that being (or feeling) more drunk on flights is part science, part circumstance.

"At cruising altitude, most cabins are pressurised to the equivalent of 6,000-8,000 feet above sea level. Under such conditions, less oxygen will be taken up into your bloodstream compared to if you were at sea level.

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"The knock-on effect of this is that your brain may experience a very mild reduction in the amount of oxygen that it is used to. This is called 'hypoxia' and is what is much more likely to give you that sensation of being more drunk."

He goes on: "Various other factors whip up the perfect storm in terms of getting more intoxicated, and faster. Dehydration - people tend to drink much less water, and the filtered cabin air is dry. Carbonated alcoholic drinks are popular on board, which you absorb quicker. An empty stomach - no-one really enjoys plane food. Limited movement, so you’re metabolising the alcohol slower. And don't forget good-fashioned excitement - you're on a plane, and you're going somewhere."

Eight airlines that don't serve alcohol

  1. Royal Brunei Airlines
  2. Saudi Arabian Airlines
  3. Turkish Airlines (domestic)
  4. EgyptAir
  5. Kuwait Airways
  6. Pakistan International Airlines
  7. Iran Air
  8. Iraqi Airways

What are the licensing laws?

There are none - the sky is in many ways a lawless domain. There isn't even an age-limit to speak of. Airlines are free to make their own rules, and usually they mirror those of the country they are based.

United, for example, being an an American airline, doesn't allow drinking under the age of 21. For British Airways, the age limit is 18. And several Arab airlines don't serve alcohol at all.


This article was written by Annabel Fenwick Elliott from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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