United Airlines To Resume Liquor Sales: Is This A Wise Move?

A series of United Airlines aircraft parked at San Francisco terminal
Raimond Spekking via Wikimedia Commons

LONDON – United Airlines has announced that it will resume sales of liquor onboard its flights. But with the culture of unruly passengers rising in the U.S, is this a wise move?

This piece will look into this announcement and whether this is indeed a good idea, and whether United is potentially sacrificing safety at the expense of revenue.

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The Announcement

Starting from today, the airline is selling “mini booze bottles in economy class on domestic flights of more than 300 miles “in response to the feedback we’ve received from both customers and flight attendants”” (Muntean, 2021).

BriYYZ from Toronto, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“The ability to offer a complete food and beverage menu is something that we know is important to our customers,” United said.

United will implement contactless payment technologies in order to maintain safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The airline has previously resumed serving beer, wine, and hard seltzer since June.

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Unruly Passengers

Such expansion of the liquor United will be selling comes at a period where unruly passengers in the United States is extremely rife at present.

Since the start of this year, more than 5,100 cases of unruly passengers have been reported to the Federal Aviation Administration (ibid).

Konstantin von Wedelstaedt (GFDL 1.2 http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html or GFDL 1.2 http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html), via Wikimedia Commons

The FAA has announced recently that it has fined 10 passengers with fines totaling together $225,287, which is the second-biggest “announcement of fines for unruly passengers since the agency enacted a no-tolerance policy earlier this year” (Muntean & Wallace, 2021).

The biggest fines were recorded back in August this year, where 34 passengers were fined, totaling $531,545, “bringing this year’s total to more than $1 million” (Muntean & Wallace, 2021a).

Such unruly passengers have caused other airlines to action themselves differently when it comes to the distribution and sale of alcohol on flights.

American Airlines, for example, announced back in August that it “will not serve alcohol in the main cabin of its flights until January 18, 2022, when the US mask mandate on public transportation is now set to expire” (Muntean & Wallace, 2021b).

BriYYZ from Toronto, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Southwest Airlines have also said that alcohol sales will be suspended until next year as well, especially with that carrier recently having an issue surrounding a crew member being assaulted before a flight boarded to New York from Texas (Field, 2021).

Is it securing revenue at the expense of safety?

For United Airlines, this may seem a little bit of a double-edged sword when looking at revenue procurement in respect to potentially compromising safety.

Around six percent of unruly passengers, this year have been under the influence of alcohol and has not helped any situations when such passengers are displaying their complaints to the crew (Bidwell, 2021).

JacobAviation, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Whilst this figure is low, it is a figure that could quite easily rise, so the need for complacency is unnecessary as a handful of that six percent could have compromised the operations of the flight, and could even cause the worst-case scenario going forward.

Implementing hard liquor sales once again could exacerbate that situation, and could, in theory, place more flights into disrepute and danger.

But again, if it is just the fact that passengers are stressed during this pandemic, then it may be down to the airlines, airport, and even the FAA to take steps to make the process easier for fliers going forward.

So at this moment in time, because of the low percentages, it suggests that alcohol may not be the main fuel in such unruly passengers.

Are the FAA’s, Airport’s & Airlines’ Actions Enough?

The FAA has previously placed blame on airport concessionaires in the past, where they “sell alcohol-to-go” meaning that “passengers simply carry their drinks on board” (USA Today, 2021).

Photo: Conde Nast Traveler

The Transportation Secretary in the United States, Pete Buttigieg, said that that a federal no-fly list of unruly passengers “should be on the table”, but rather than saying this, it’s clear that action is much more preferred at this stage (ibid).

Such issues around this could be the messaging, with USA Today mentioning that “there needs to be a clear message that if alcohol or simply being an angry person drives someone to abusive or violent behavior during a flight, they automatically forfeit the prerogative to fly commercially” (ibid).

So, therefore, it is the case that the U.S Government needs to implement this zero-tolerance policy fully because otherwise, the number of fines will continue to rise with no action actually being properly taken.

Airlines have, of course, taken actions such as instigating no-fly lists of their own, but there is nothing then to stop those passengers from flying with other airlines instead, thus creating a chain that cannot be stopped properly without proper intervention.

So is this a wise move from United?

Aero Icarus from Zürich, Switzerland, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Overall, whilst the number of unruly passengers being drunk is low, there is nothing to stop this figure from rising, especially as we enter Thanksgiving and the Christmas season.

United could very well be putting fire on the flames and beginning a process of making that single-digit percentage increase into a double or even triple-digit percentage, in the worst case.

However, because other airlines have taken action and are not reinstating alcohol sales, it could potentially keep that curve down. But this is something that shouldn’t be tested with at this stage, as the volatility of passengers in the United States continues to rise.


  • Muntean, P. (2021), United Airlines resumes hard liquor sales, CNN, https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/united-airlines-resumes-serving-liquor/index.html [Last Accessed 15/11/21]
  • Muntean, P. & Wallace, G. (2021), Violent airline passengers fined more than $200,000 by FAA, CNN, http://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/faa-unruly-passenger-fines/index.html [Last Accessed 15/11/21]
  • Muntean, P. & Wallace G. (2021a), FAA Proposes more than 500,000 in new fines against unruly passengers, CNN, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/08/19/politics/faa-unruly-passengers-fines/index.html [Last Accessed 15/11/21]
  • Field, J. (2021), Southwest Airlines Flight Attendant Hospitalised After Passenger Assault, AviationSource, https://aviationsourcenews.com/general-news/southwest-airlines-flight-attendant-hospitalised-after-passenger-assault/ [Last Accessed 15/11/21]
  • Bidwell, C. (2021), Unfriendly skies: Stressed passengers, not alcohol, are why conflicts on planes have soared, USA Today, https://eu.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2021/11/15/covid-air-travel-stress-drives-surge-unruly-passengers/6389090001/ [Last Accessed 15/11/21]
  • USA Today (2021), The rule for unruly passengers? One strike and you’re off the plane. Permanently, https://eu.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2021/11/13/ban-airline-passengers-who-disrupt-flights-and-make-permanent/6344879001/ [Last Accessed 15/11/21]

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