US airline to end ‘dry’ flights


Special: Battle Against Novel Coronavirus

When Southwest Airlines planes take to the air Wednesday, so will the sale of alcoholic beverages onboard despite objections by union officials representing the airline’s flight attendants, who said it could increase air-rage incidents.

Southwest’s resumption of alcohol service on flights of at least 147 miles comes shortly after two separate incidents involving unruly passengers forced US carriers to make emergency landings. It also follows a report by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that it has recently seen a “disturbing increase” in airline passengers disrupting flights with threatening or violent behavior.

In January, the FAA said unruly passengers’ reports were down 50 percent from the year before when it received nearly 6,000 reports of such behavior. The majority — 4,290 — were related to COVID-19 mask requirements.

In the first two weeks of 2022, the agency said it was notified of 76 reports of unruly passengers. Just under half were mask-related, it said. But as of Feb 8, the FAA said there have been 394 unruly-passenger reports and 255 mask-related incidents this year.

Dallas-based Southwest stopped selling alcohol in March 2020 as the pandemic was taking hold in the US and then extended it last year to minimize the risk of passengers becoming rowdy or removing their masks.

The carrier said customers have expressed a desire for more beverage options, “so we’re delighted to restore additional on-board offerings as a part of the Southwest hospitality that our customers know and love”. The airline also said that it would expand its nonalcoholic options.

The union representing more than 11,000 Southwest flight attendants said in a statement it was “outraged” at the resumption of alcohol sales, “a move we consider to be both unsafe and irresponsible”.

American Airlines is the only major US airline still holding out on resuming alcohol sales. The FAA’s investigations into aggressive behavior onboard has shown that alcohol is often a contributing factor. In July, the agency urged airport bars and restaurants to stop serving alcoholic drinks to go.

On Sunday, an American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Washington DC made an emergency landing in Kansas City after a passenger attempted to enter the cockpit and open an exit door. Crew members and other passengers controlled the unruly passenger until he was taken into custody upon landing.

On Feb 10, a man on a Frontier flight from New York to Orlando, Florida, threatened “to kill” everyone on board. He was restrained by other passengers. The plane made an emergency landing in North Carolina, where the man was arrested.

Under current law, unruly behavior could land an offender up to 20 years in prison and a fine up to $37,000. Last November, the FAA had referred 37 of the “most egregious” unruly passenger cases to the FBI for criminal review, reported ABC News.

In November, Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered the Justice Department to prioritize prosecuting violent airplane passengers.

Each US airline has its own “no-fly” list for unruly passengers, but in a letter in January to Garland, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian urged Garland to create a national list so “individuals who have endangered the safety and security of our people don’t go on to do so on another carrier”, Reuters reported.

Bastian said unruly-passenger incidents on Delta flights had increased nearly 100 percent since 2019.

Delta has put nearly 1,900 people on its no-fly list for disregarding mask requirements. Another 900-plus banned names were submitted to the Transportation Security Administration to pursue civil penalties.

The US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has said unruly passengers won’t be tolerated, but he has stopped short of the federal no-fly list, saying “there is complexity” when the government tries to do it.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, said getting the federal government involved in banning unruly passengers is likely to raise civil liberties concerns, and passengers would need some form of redress.

Spirit and Frontier Airlines, the two largest low-cost carriers in the US, agreed earlier this month to merge, creating what would become the fifth-largest airline in the country. Under the deal, valued at $6.6 billion, Frontier would control the merged airline, and Spirit would hold 48.5 percent.


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