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Why Does Alcohol Cost So Much When You Fly?

What’s with all those little plastic bottles? And how much are the airlines making on this, really?

Unless you’re experiencing the spacious, plush-leather-appointed decadence of first class, the modern flying experience completely sucks. Everyone knows this: You’re cramped, you may or may not be on schedule, you’re hurtling through the frozen troposphere in a 700,000-pound aluminum spear going hundreds of miles an hour and trusting that the pilots are indeed sober, that all those mechanics know what they’re doing and that the baggage handlers managed to get your suitcase onto the plane. But hey, sit back, relax and enjoy the flight! 

Yeah, no — not before that galley cart comes wheeling through the cabin, goddammit! That sweet, sweet in-flight adult beverage is truly the smallest possible comfort in flight. It’s quite likely that Miller Lite never tasted so good. Unfortunately, though, you’re going to pay for it. So what’s going on with airplane alcohol prices? What’s the markup on it? How important is it to the airlines’ bottom line? How come the selection is often smaller than what you can find at a college dorm-room party? 

Alongside Ajai Ammachathram, an assistant professor and food and beverage extension specialist at the University of Nebraska’s School of Nutrition and Health Sciences, we’re urgently unscrewing the cap on some answers.

Before we get to those absurd airplane alcohol prices, when did booze even start being served on passenger flights?

The first alcohol drunk on a passenger plane was likely snuck on board, as the industry got up and running during Prohibition, when it was obviously illegal to serve alcohol. But Pan Am started serving drinks in the late 1940s.

In fact, food and drinks of any kind on planes are pretty much non-negotiable, according to Ammachathram. “Airlines cannot function, especially the long flights, without food or beverage,” he says. “It’s a necessary evil.” At least in the sense that airlines can’t expect to lock people in a plane and let their hunger or thirst continue unabated. 

How profitable is alcohol on a plane?

Wildly so! Ammachathram estimates the gross profit on alcohol sales is more than 50 percent — which sounds about right when you’re being charged damn near $10 for a can of beer. “I compare selling booze on a flight to popcorn and candy in a movie theater,” he explains. “The thing about the movie theater is that you go there to relax, but I don’t think anybody will say that about the flying experience.” 

How much alcohol do they sell in-flight?

A lot! Alcohol sales are three times that of in-flight food sales. 

And what does that all add up to? 

Ammachathram doesn’t have the exact numbers, but his educated guess is revenues of over a hundred million dollars a year, for the whole airline industry.

That’s just alcohol? Not including food?

That’s right. 

Damn.

It’s a lot of money, yes, but Ammachathram says that, compared to the money airlines make on baggage fees, booze is practically a rounding error: In 2018, the U.S. airline industry made $4.9 billion — with a “B” — on baggage fees.

Bastards. What type of booze sells the most?

Liquor is the most popular, followed by wine, then beer. Basically, alcohol content in descending order.

Figures. So do alcohol companies strike deals with airline companies? How’s it work?

It’s similar to beverage distribution elsewhere, where these things are negotiated. Ever noticed that you rarely see Pepsi products on a plane? Ammachathram says that’s because Coca-Cola has monopolized the soft-drink portion of the airline industry and has paid for the right to do so. It’s hard to get a spot on those limited menus. Nowadays, another way airlines decide their beverage programs is with the help of sommeliers.

Why are the in-flight beverage menus so limited?

Because — as you probably noticed even before your legs started tingling and falling asleep — space is at a premium in an aircraft. Airlines can’t necessarily offer everyone’s own favorite IPA. And not only is space a factor, but weight also. They don’t want to carry too much inventory, which in turn makes the aircraft heavier. Every ounce of weight they can save is fuel saved.

But with this in mind, most airlines make an effort to cover the spectrums of the menu with budget, mid-range and premium beverage options. Which, sigh, are priced accordingly.

What’s with those stupid little plastic bottles?

Yeah… the reason most everything is plastic or aluminum is because trash has to go into a trash compactor. And again, weight is a factor here too. They’ll make an exception for their highest-paying customers and sometimes serve wine out of a glass bottle for those in first class, but certainly not to the riffraff behind them in the cabin. Imagine how much weight a wine cellar would add to a plane!

And how are airplane alcohol prices set?

There seems to be an industry standard, doesn’t there? Ammachathram says United sells beer in the $8 range. So does Delta. American too. Southwest is, predictably enough, a dollar or two cheaper. “One airline does it, maybe United or Delta, and then everybody follows,” Ammachathram says. “So it’s kind of an unspoken way of setting up these prices, because there’s no logic in selling a beer for $8.”

But they’re high because you’re a captive audience, right?

That’s right, brochacho. It goes back to Ammachathram’s movie theater analogy. But unlike at a movie or even a stadium, where it’s almost a rite of passage to sneak stuff in to avoid getting gouged, it’s pretty difficult to sneak booze onto a plane. So, pay up, or sit there absolutely sober in your tiny seat! That’s your choice and the airline knows it. Has there ever been a better (or more miserable) environment in which to sell vastly marked-up alcohol?

Which flights sell the most booze?

Prepare to not be shocked: In the U.S., Ammachathram says statistics show that it’s the flights headed to Las Vegas.

Are they always going to be wheeling that galley cart up and down the aisle?

No, probably not. Ammachathram sees a post-COVID future that’s more contactless and self-serve. Enforcing age limits for alcohol will certainly be a challenge! He also envisions a more widespread use of ordering your food and drinks well ahead of time, which some airlines do already on longer-haul flights. Then there’s the plastic: With sustainability becoming an ever more important issue, Ammachathram thinks the airline industry — and the food and beverage industry more generally — will be changing their habits, somehow.

In that uncertain future, who knows what will happen to airplane alcohol prices — but you can be confident booze will remain high, and that they’ll still be making hundreds of millions of dollars off of it.

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