Dram Shop Law for the airlines needed for passenger safety

by Ned Levi on September 29, 2009

airplane cabin photo by Aaron Escobar
No matter how you cut it, airline travel isn’t easy these days. Exacerbating that, too many passengers, flight attendants, and airlines have left their responsibility at the cabin door.

Like many frequent fliers, I’m fed up.

On American Airlines flight 767 from Dallas to London, Hussam Jaber, became drunk and unruly, didn’t obey flight crew orders, and jabbed at several flight attendants. The flight was diverted to Boston’s Logan Airport where he was arrested.

What was he thinking?

A few years back, on Air Canada Flight 662, a one-and-a-half hour flight from Montreal to Halifax, a drunk passenger was still swearing when arrested in Halifax. In the air he wouldn’t follow crew instructions and he removed one of the plastic coverings on the inside of the plane’s window.

Do you believe that?

Last year, James Allen Cameron, 50, of Anaheim was on a United Airlines flight from Hong Kong to LAX. He had been drinking and became belligerent, and verbally abusive. He hit an off duty pilot during the flight, then later punched a flight attendant on the chin.

He will likely be sentenced to five years in prison or more this fall.

During the last decade I have accumulated hundreds of thousands of miles in the air, and I have witnessed more than my share of unruly, abusive, drunk passengers.

I believe that each of those passengers, like the ones listed above, had the personal responsibility to behave in a reasonable and safe manner. They have themselves to blame for their illegal behavior, and any legal trouble they earned.

That being said, it appears that in the examples above, and in similar instances I’ve personally encountered, had the flight attendants scrutinized their passengers’ condition even a little bit, and were more reasonably serious about their (crew) responsibilities, they might have prevented the problems on their flights. They could have simply stopped serving alcoholic beverages to those already drunk.

When will the airlines and their flight crews take their responsibility seriously when serving alcoholic beverages? Perhaps it will happen when someone is killed by a passenger in a drunken rage? Sooner of later, if flight attendants don’t change their job behavior, it’s going to happen.

The FAA holds passengers responsible for their actions inflight. When will the FAA hold the airlines and their crews similarly responsible?

Kathy Lord-Jones of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants said, “Poor behavior should not be tolerated anywhere, but when it happens at 35,000 feet, the behavior jeopardizes the overall safety of that aircraft.”

She was referring to passengers, of course, and she’s right. Drunken passengers poor behavior shouldn’t be tolerated, but neither should the airlines behavior of serving passengers alcoholic beverages until they are drunk, and many times even after they are visibly drunk.

Most airlines today encourage their flight crews to file criminal and civil charges against passengers who abuse them. I think they should, but how about the FAA filing federal charges against flight crews who continue to serve obviously intoxicated passengers until they become abusive and endanger the safety of the aircraft?

To the best of my knowledge, it has never been done, because there is no FAA Dram Shop regulation which holds flight crews and the airlines responsible for their irresponsible serving of alcoholic beverages inflight. It’s about time for such regulation.

In Pennsylvania, we have a Dram Shop Law. Under it, a business or individual who gives alcohol to a visibly intoxicated person is legally responsible, along with the drunken person they served, for any damage that person might cause.

I have been on more than a few flights in recent years during which visibly intoxicated passengers were continued to be plied with drinks by the flight crew, even while these passengers began to act out. It wasn’t until they were essentially out of control, that the flight attendants cut them off.

Talk about way too late.

To me, while the passenger still bears personal responsibility for their actions, a flight crew who serves a passenger alcoholic beverages making them drunk or continues serving them while visibly intoxicated, deserves whatever abuse they get, and should be held equally accountable, both criminally and civilly for anything the passengers does while in that condition.

I’d be willing to bet if the FAA put a Dram Shop regulation into effect, drunken passengers would not be served inflight, and the incidents of drunken passengers’ criminal behavior, interfering with the operations of the flight crew and endangering the safety of the aircraft would virtually disappear.

If you agree, please write to me, your Senators and Representative and ask them to require the FAA hold flight crews responsible for their actions, for serving visibly intoxicated passengers alcoholic beverages, or better yet, pass a Federal Dram Shop law for commercial aviation.

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  • John

    Its about time someone brought this up. I’ve always wondered why a bartender can be arrested for serving someone drunk but a FA can’t. I was on a flight with a incredibly drunk person where the FA continued to serve her because she would get belligerent anytime they refused (pre 9/11).

    I’ve never understood why an airline can serve someone to the point that they get violent, say it was alcohol related and the drunk person goes to jail with civil penalties etc. but nothing happens to the crew.
    My email is on its way.

  • http://www.bonjourparis.com Karen Fawcett

    Ned: I couldn’t agree with you more. Recently, I was on a flight with a man who’d already had too much to drink before we boarded. I informed the crew to go easy when it came to serving him liquor.
    Since we were seated in business class, the flight attendant plied him with all he requested. Those bottles may be miniatures but they add up. When he became abusive, I was informed (and I’d moved seats) that security was going meet the flight. Fast talking was done but this was an incidence of crew neglect. And I’ve seen it happen numerous times. Who wants to be seated next to a drunk even if he or she is benign?

  • SL

    I have a problem with the third to last paragraph. No one deserves abuse. The paragraph also makes it sound like if you serve a passenger anything, your liable.

  • Matthew in NYC

    Different airlines have different ways of dealing with this. A friend of mine was on BA a few years ago when a group of passengers gathered near the rear galley having a few drinks begain to get a little loud (quite a ways short of unruly), they asked for more wine, which had mysteriously run out in that galley, when the FA “went to get more”, suddenly the fasten seat belts sign came on – no more booze. I was on Egyptair some years ago, they gave you your booze ration at the cabin door, and the cabin staff had no more – as Muslims they were not permitted to touch it.

    The best time to cut people off is long before they’re drunk, when they’re still rational enough to understand that they might not be drinking in a sensible manner. I would enourage flight attendants to offer water at the same time as booze.

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  • john

    My wife & I were on a Delta flight to Las Vegas on 10/12/09. I man sitting behind us came onto the plane already a little boozed up. During the flight, he was served AT LEAST 7 drinks (he had 3 beers cans & 3 mixed drink cups on the floor and 1 drink in his hand). We asked him twice to stop banging on the back of my wifes seat. After the 2nd time, he started to threaten my wife & I with physical harm. He ranted how he was going to beat my wife & I when we landed and while we were in the air. After letting the verbal tirade go on long enough, I got up after he got up to let a passenger use the rest room and he stood over my wife with a look of he was going to snap. We started to argue and only after my wife complained to a stewardess, that they pulled him to the back of the plane for the rest of the flight. These Flight Attendants were clearly at fault for serving this jerk that many drinks and all Delta would say is “here is a $50 voucher as a gesture of apology”. I would like to get an attorney and see what they have to say on this matter. Any thoughts??

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/ned/ Ned Levi

    I’m not an attorney, but I doubt you’re going to get any satisfaction via that route. I’d move up the food chain at Delta. In fact, I’d write to Stephen E. Gorman, Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer to see if you’ll get more of an answer from his office.

    Delta Air Lines, Inc.
    P.O. Box 20706
    Atlanta, Georgia 30320-6001
    Attention: Stephen E. Gorman, Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer

    You could also phone him at Delta’s headquarters in Atlanta at: 404-715-2600

    Look, you and your wife are not at fault. The two of you shouldn’t have had to endure the problem. That being said I do think you made a serious mistake early on in the flight. I’m making this comment for your future travels should you run into this again (hopefully that will never happen), and for other travelers to consider.

    You asked him twice, I assume politely, to stop banging on your wife’s seat. Once the man threatened to harm your wife, I would have immediately gotten up and complained to the head flight attendant. I would have asked the FA, politely, but firmly to protect your wife. Drunk and abusive passengers have been known to be restrained inflight. If there was a Marshall on-board, (The FAs will know.) I would have asked the FAs to inform the Marshall. I would have asked the FA to inform the captain of the problem too. You can’t let anything like that escalate, and you can’t get directly involved or you put yourself in jeopardy under Federal Law.

    When he stood over your wife I would have immediately pressed the call button, and pressed it repeatedly if necessary (you might have to reset it to re-press it), until the FAs came to your assistance.

    Never, I repeat, never, get into an argument with a drunk on a plane. You don’t know what could happen, and you don’t know what the drunk is capable of.

    The flight attendants might have been culpable by serving him on the plane, but you could have and should have taken action much earlier.

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