The strange history of binge drinking in flight

For me, a holiday starts with that first sip of an ice-cold G&T while floating above the clouds. There’s a special kind of release you feel at 35,000 feet, when you’re slightly drunk, that makes the burden of the airport and the stress of vacation planning disappear into thin air. The holidays have really started now.

And while standards for budget airlines may not be the best, last week a passenger on a Ryanair flight ordered a “Dublin Lemonade” from the airline’s new “ready-made” cocktail menu and was promptly presented with the individual ingredients . to make the drink yourself – in the premium classes the choice of drinks is of course very high.

Passengers flying first class on Emirates from Dubai to America this summer can enjoy a free glass of Dom Pérignon Rosé 2008, an extremely rare bottling and exclusive to Emirates. Virgin Atlantic’s new cocktail menu, launched this spring, brings destination-inspired creations to the luxury cabin. Passengers on flights to the US can enjoy the “American Dream”, a Patron Silver tequila mixed with grapefruit soda and a squeeze of lime, upon order.

With the advent of commercial airlines in the 1920s came drinks, as seen on this French plane

With the arrival of commercial airlines in the 1920s came drinks, as seen on this French plane – Fox Photos/Getty

So where does the in-flight drink story begin? On a hot air balloon. According to Richard Foss, author of the book, the very first alcoholic drink was served in the air in December 1783 Food in the air and space: the surprising history of food and drink in the air. Physicist Jacques Charles and his fellow passenger Nicholas-Louis Robert popped open a bottle of champagne to toast the balloon’s ascent as it began its two-and-a-half-hour journey. That first glass of fizz set a precedent for the era of glamorous air travel that would follow.

A dry start

While commercial airlines first emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, the Prohibition era in the United States meant that alcohol was not served on American airlines until the 1940s, with Pan Am and National Airlines leading the charge. The advent of pressurized aircraft began with the Boeing 307 Stratoliner, which allowed 33 passengers to travel at higher altitudes in relative comfort. Larger vessels meant more space for cabin crew, and the addition of galley kitchens made serving alcohol easier.

Cocktails of sky-high quality

While Pan Am was the first in the US to serve alcoholic beverages on board, it was National Airlines that paved the way for the future of alcohol on board, serving it on flights from New York to Miami once they leave US airspace found. According to Jack El-Hai, author of Nonstop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlinesit was Northwest, which dissolved after merging with Delta in 2008, that took things seriously and published pamphlets entitled The story of spirits to educate staff in the art of serving drinks. To save space by not having to carry multiple mixers, the airline served martinis, whiskey, Manhattans and scotch on all its domestic flights.

Pan Am's onboard menu from c.  1950 shows a waiter serving food and drinksPan Am's onboard menu from c.  1950 shows a waiter serving food and drinks

Pan Am’s onboard menu from c. 1950 shows a waiter serving food and drinks – Jim Heimann Collection/Getty

Champagne service

Until 1978, the Civil Aeronautics Board controlled ticket prices in the US, so the best way for airlines to make money was to charge extra for attractive extras such as three-course meals and unlimited alcohol. Competition between airlines then increased, and with the lack of in-flight entertainment, the race to get bums into seats meant luring customers with free drinks and snacks. Delta’s Royal Service offered complimentary champagne, followed by canapes and cocktails and, should you ask for more, mini bottles of your favorite spirits.

Meanwhile, in Britain, BEA (British European Airways) relaunched the pre-war Silver Wing service between London Heathrow and Paris in 1952. The first flight’s drink offering included champagne served in plastic glasses – a novelty at the time.

The golden age of drinking on the fly

However, it was the introduction of the Boeing 747 into Pan Am’s fleet in 1970 that really got the party started. These jumbo jets were big enough to fit into bars and lounges and the race was on to provide the most exclusive, crazy experience. The menus at Pan Am were enormous, including a wide range of fine wines and meals served with good cutlery.

Continental Airlines (now United Airlines after a 2012 merger) famously advertised not one but two lounges and a pub onboard its Boeing 747s, as a marketing postcard from the 1970s reads: “The Polynesian Pub, the Continental’s new Coach lounge… a nice place to relax, eat fresh popcorn, drink cold beer or cocktails and meet friendly people.”

In the 1960s, stylish in-flight drinking increasedIn the 1960s, stylish in-flight drinking increased

The 1960s saw the rise of stylish in-flight drinking – ClassicStock / Alamy

Qantas’s Captain Cook themed lounge followed in 1971, with seating for 15 people and a standing bar. And let’s not forget the iconic American Airlines piano bar. To compete, New York-based Mohawk Airlines decorated their aging DC-3 as vintage train cars, with stewards dressed as dance hall ladies handing out free beer, cigarettes and pretzels to passengers.

The British approach in the late 1970s was naturally more restrained and BA’s first and business class passengers were treated to on-board catering inspired by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (from 1558 to 1603). A Posset cocktail – popular some 400 years ago, was a concoction made by mixing hot milk, spices and liqueurs.

End of an era

But when economy class seats were first introduced on transatlantic flights, the exclusive feel and glamor of air travel slowly began to fade. Airlines had to limit their food and drink offerings in economy class to coffee, tea, mineral water and ‘simple, cold and cheap’ sandwiches.

One last round: British Airways customers enjoying champagne in 1989One last round: British Airways customers enjoying champagne in 1989

One last round: British Airways customers enjoying champagne in 1989 – Peter Jordan/Popper photo via Getty

In January 2017, BA announced it would no longer offer free food and drink on short-haul services, a move described by The Telegraph‘s Nick Trend as the “end of an era”. Trend suggested at the time that there is no longer any difference between the airline and companies such as easyJet or Ryanair. “Charging economy class passengers for drinks and sandwiches for short distances removes the last distinction between BA and its low-cost rivals.”

The glamorous era of drinking on planes still exists – in business and in first class. And if you fancy a G&T, most airlines are happy to serve a slice (although perhaps not ice) as standard.

A warning

While it is an undisputed fact that alcohol is bad for your health, a recent study has shown that drinking and falling asleep on a plane can even be fatal for people with pre-existing heart conditions. “I would advise people with heart or lung conditions to avoid drinking alcohol on planes,” said Dr. Eva-Maria Elmenhorst of the German Aerospace Center in Cologne in a recent Telegraph article. The new study conducted an experiment on 48 people to assess the effects of alcohol and sleep on people in a pressurized cabin, and found that alcohol had a significant negative effect on heart rate and oxygen saturation levels.

“It is important to remember that this research is based on a small sample of people and the results may not be translated to the population as a whole,” said Ian Hamilton, senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York. “Most people who drink and fly will not experience any significant health problems. That said, we don’t know what the long-term effects of combining alcohol with flights are. Given the reduced oxygen levels, it is possible that physical risks could build up into a more serious health problem.”

Perhaps more worrying is what Hamilton calls “the BOGOF effect” of drinking alcohol on an airplane. “Consuming one unit feels like two and this can really take people by surprise.”

The party still continues at the Emirates bar on boardThe party still continues at the Emirates bar on board

The party continues at the Emirates bar on board – David Copeman

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