When the drunk businessman staggered onto the airplane, Boeing Air Transport pilot Al De Gormo hoped he’d pass out quickly. It was the late 1920s, and domestic airlines in the United States didn’t serve alcohol or allow it brought on board. But as De Gormo flew over the Nevada desert headed for San Francisco, he noticed that the airplane seemed out of balance. “To his utter surprise and alarm,” writes transportation historian Daniel Rust, “he looked out at the wing, where the inebriated passenger, holding onto a wing strut, grinned and waved at him.” After an emergency landing and some yelling, the passenger returned to his seat. De Gormo took off, only to find that the passenger was “once again giving wing walking a try.”
Before 1949, U.S. airlines didn’t serve alcohol in flight, writes Rust in Flying Across America: The Airline Passenger Experience. But when a few airlines eventually decided to serve alcohol, that didn’t mean it was easy to do so. Because of conflicting state liquor laws, drinks could be served only over certain states. The New York Times reported in 1950 that on a flight leaving New York for the West Coast, passengers could drink over New Jersey, but not over Pennsylvania, a no-sale state. On Northwest Airlines’ two-deck Stratocruisers, bar attendants were given a chart of state liquor sale restrictions. “The chart lists the states along the route, and for each state gives prohibited hours, prohibited days and restrictions to persons served,” the article reports. “The attendant judges from landmarks, his own watch or advice from pilots whether—and to whom—he can serve drinks.” (That includes refusing drinks to “spendthrifts” when flying over South Dakota, for some reason.) The attendant also knew that drinks couldn’t be served on Sundays, election days, certain other holidays, and specific hours in some states.
Intoxicated passengers soon became a problem on some flights. By the mid-1950s the FAA imposed a two-drink limit that some passengers skirted by intimidating flight attendants into giving them more drinks, or wrangling the drinks of other passengers. Congress stepped in, looking to ban the serving of liquor on all domestic flights. Six U.S. airlines agreed to limit hard liquor, but declared they wouldn’t restrict beer and wine service. Writes Daniel Rust: “After being accosted by a drunken passenger on a domestic flight, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn pushed for a bill forbidding alcohol service on airliners, only to see it die in the Senate.”
Banning alcohol on flights won’t happen anytime soon. According to figures collected from five U.S. airlines over a four-month period in 2014, alcohol sales brought in more than $43 million. And just a few weeks ago, KXAN reported that “passengers on a Southwest Airlines flight from Oakland, California, to Kansas City, Missouri, managed to drink all the plane’s alcohol, prompting the pilot to go on the overhead speaker and congratulate the fliers.”