Why Airlines Sometimes Don’t Serve Alcohol On Ground

Why Airlines Sometimes Don’t Serve Alcohol On Ground

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On my LOT Polish Airlines flight from Chicago to Warsaw, I witnessed an interesting interaction. I’ve never covered this topic before on the blog, so figured it could be interesting to discuss.

A LOT Polish Airlines pre-departure drink discussion

Shortly after boarding my LOT flight last night from Chicago to Warsaw, one of the friendly flight attendants offered passengers the choice of water or orange juice. Below is roughly how the conversation went between the flight attendant and the person seated in front of me:

Flight attendant: “Would you like water or orange juice?”
Passenger: “Do you have champagne?”
Flight attendant: “I’m sorry sir, they don’t allow us to offer alcohol on the ground.”
Passenger: “Oh, why is that?”
Flight attendant: “I don’t know, but it is the regulation. We can serve it for you once we take off, and we can serve it when departing Warsaw, but the United States doesn’t allow this.”
Passenger: “Then why is Lufthansa allowed to serve champagne on the ground? Discrimination!”
Flight attendant: “I don’t know, but these are the regulations that we have. I have wondered this too.”

The passenger and flight attendant probably discussed this for another minute, and both were just shrugging their shoulders about this. The passenger wasn’t angry — just genuinely curious — while the flight attendant couldn’t offer up an explanation.

LOT Polish Airlines pre-departure drinks

Airlines have to pay taxes on alcohol served on ground

The correct answer isn’t that LOT isn’t allowed to serve alcohol on the ground in the United States, but rather that the airline doesn’t want to pay the taxes for serving it on the ground. Just as you can go duty free shopping prior to your international flight as a passenger, airlines can do the same.

For international flights departing the United States, airlines don’t have to pay taxes on any alcohol served inflight. However, they do have to pay taxes for any alcohol served on the ground.

Now, most decent airlines realize that many passengers enjoy a pre-departure glass of champagne, so they’re willing to pay the fairly small amount of taxes to offer passengers that. In these situations, you’ll notice that the galley carts are configured so that one cart is for drinks that can be served on the ground, and the other cart is “locked” until after takeoff, since taxes haven’t been paid on the contents.

Keep in mind that this policy doesn’t exclusively present itself in terms of whether an airline chooses to service alcohol or not. It can also impact the quality of alcohol that airlines serve. For example, Emirates is known for serving Dom Perignon in first class. However, if you ask for a glass of champagne on the ground, you’ll be served the business class selection, which is typically Veuve Clicquot or Moet.

Emirates is willing to pay some taxes on alcohol, but obviously not the amount of taxes required to serve Dom Perignon. If you do fly Emirates first class, this is why it’s always worth saving your alcohol tolerance for after takeoff. 😉

My Emirates pre-departure drink of choice departing the US

Countries have varying policies when it comes to having to pay taxes on alcohol served on the ground, so in the above example I’m just focused on the United States. Then you also have some countries that just outright ban serving alcohol on the ground.

For example, in the Maldives, airlines aren’t legally allowed to serve alcohol pre-departure. While they can serve it inflight, and they can serve it at resorts, the airport is in Male, where alcohol is banned.

Qatar Airways pre-departure drink departing Male

Bottom line

When flying internationally out of the United States, airlines are only taxed for the alcohol they serve on the ground, and not for the alcohol they serve in the air. This is why you’ll notice that airlines have varying policies surrounding pre-departure drinks.

Some airlines will offer alcoholic drinks on the ground, other airlines will offer a more limited or watered down selection of alcoholic drinks, and other airlines will just not serve alcohol on the ground. Regardless of which option an airline chooses, this is a financial choice, and not some government ban.

What has your experience been with alcoholic pre-departure drinks?

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  1. Sonnyb Guest

    If you desperately need alcohol drink, then you have a serious problems you drunk

  2. NickC Guest

    In Virgins case as I recall - Branson couldnt hold a US liquor license due to a (minor) criminal history in the UK.
    When Delta took over that no longer applied

  3. Anonymous Guest

    I am pretty sure TK serves alcohol on US soil to the passengers who ask for it . I recall one time , while taxiing for takeoff the FA transferred one passenger;s whiskey to a paper cup.

  4. Judith Guest

    Well I am trying to recall - seems like champagne is usually served on British Airways flights to London which I have taken multiple times from Phoenix and Pittsburgh. But maybe the champagne is served on the ground, only on the return from London!
    I remember that I was surprised not to have champagne served pre-flight occasionally, but I did take American from Charlotte a couple of times so it may have been on...

    Well I am trying to recall - seems like champagne is usually served on British Airways flights to London which I have taken multiple times from Phoenix and Pittsburgh. But maybe the champagne is served on the ground, only on the return from London!
    I remember that I was surprised not to have champagne served pre-flight occasionally, but I did take American from Charlotte a couple of times so it may have been on American.
    I will be on BA in October so I will try to pay attention, and will report back!

    1. Leanne Walsham Guest

      Just boarded a BA from JFK to LHR and the BA crew are stating due to US law they snatches bottles of alcohol which is a bald faced lie, BA just don't want to pay the tax on it. They are offering water and orange juice to first class and business class passengers. The whole cabin is pissed off - understandably. This isn't what we pay for!

  5. Prakash Panchalingam Guest

    A good practice, apart from tax on ground.
    Airlines can save financially.
    Suppose if there's a delay it may spend more on drinks on ground.
    Anyway if a passenger wants to refresh themselves most of the airlines have airport lounges.

  6. W Ho Guest

    Alcohol tax.
    No need to write an entire article.

  7. Kervin Guest

    You also fail to mention that certain usa states don't allow alcohol served on thw ground on certain days. You should look into that. Personally I think during boarding fas should be focusing on safety and thw boarding process. Not serving alcohol to those who have been sitting in thw lounge already drinking

  8. Max Guest

    Has there ever been an inspection though? TAx officers coming aboard and checking if an airline has really only been serving the alcoholc from the taxed cart?

  9. mjonis New Member

    Never had a PDB that was alcoholic to be able to be served from any Mexico to US flight on the "big 3". CUN/PVR/SJD. AA, Delta, United. All 3 claim they cannot serve alcohol on the ground from Mexico as it's against the law. We'll hopefully see what happens this October.

  10. Karim Guest

    I’m glad you clarified that Ben! I always knew never to take the sparkling wine on the ground as it was always the cheap stuff but that explains the logic. I do dislike it when airlines penny pinch their premium customers. Guess that’s the trend in the industry these days. Charge more and provide less.

  11. JK Guest

    When I flew EK in first from SYD-DXB last year they offered me Moet pre-departure and I said no thanks, I'll wait until we are up the the air for the Dom. Surprisingly a moment later the flight attendant serving me approached with an open bottle of Dom, saying that she spoke with the Purser said it was ok to open the bottle before takeoff. I didn't expect that but it was a nice surprise....

    When I flew EK in first from SYD-DXB last year they offered me Moet pre-departure and I said no thanks, I'll wait until we are up the the air for the Dom. Surprisingly a moment later the flight attendant serving me approached with an open bottle of Dom, saying that she spoke with the Purser said it was ok to open the bottle before takeoff. I didn't expect that but it was a nice surprise. I wonder if they sometimes turn a blind eye to one bottle? Incidentally I was 1 of only 2 pax in the 8 seat 777 cabin.

    1. Sha Guest

      Or, possibly, Australian customs has different rules. Remember, Australia (like NZ and many countries) has *exit passport control* which marks when you left the country legally. The USA does not. (That's why there's no 'international' vs. 'domestic' departure gates in the USA, it's all just 'gates'.)

      So, my belief is any booze you are given (or buy) once past exit-passport-control is thus tax-exempt. Including in the terminal bar before boarding. Thus, it doesn't matter if...

      Or, possibly, Australian customs has different rules. Remember, Australia (like NZ and many countries) has *exit passport control* which marks when you left the country legally. The USA does not. (That's why there's no 'international' vs. 'domestic' departure gates in the USA, it's all just 'gates'.)

      So, my belief is any booze you are given (or buy) once past exit-passport-control is thus tax-exempt. Including in the terminal bar before boarding. Thus, it doesn't matter if Emirates served you on the ground, or in the air, it's all legally "outside Australia". (I know here in NZ, there's no GST in the bar or any other retailer!)

      The USA doesn't have an exit-passport-control and thus no formal 'you have left the USA' line, so any drinks you buy are all taxed, presumably both on the ground in the plane and in the terminal bar. The 'exit the USA' seems to happen when the plane takes off, hence why they can then open the Dom!

      I'd guess Emirates have their procedures set up for USA compliance to maintain consistency, but the Purser knows *why* the rule exists and when it can be safely bent?

  12. iZe Guest

    Last month I flew BA First from Dallas and, despite the flight attendant offered a glass of champagne, she came back later to apologize that they were not allowed to serve it.
    I really don't care, but the staff should be aware of the reasons as well as not offering what is not available.

  13. frrp Diamond

    Maldives is such a protection racket. Cant bring alcohol, but sure its fine for the hotels to sell it at huge profit.

  14. Steven M Guest

    "the airline doesn’t want to pay the taxes for serving it on the ground" because Poland and why would a Polish government-run enterprise tell the truth?

  15. Khatl Diamond

    Delta have been doing this for years. Whatever sparkling stuff they serve while on the ground (whether prosecco, cava or something else) they always call it champagne (but they admit it's not if you actually ask). Virgin started doing the same in on the ground service a couple of years back when Delta took a bigger stake. To me, it's a disservice to the customers to pretend they're getting something they're not... Though also likely...

    Delta have been doing this for years. Whatever sparkling stuff they serve while on the ground (whether prosecco, cava or something else) they always call it champagne (but they admit it's not if you actually ask). Virgin started doing the same in on the ground service a couple of years back when Delta took a bigger stake. To me, it's a disservice to the customers to pretend they're getting something they're not... Though also likely many customers don't notice the difference.

    1. Tim Dunn Diamond

      Neither Delta or Virgin Atlantic have champagne written in writing anywhere about their pre-departure beverages.
      I have heard flight attendants mostly call it sparkling wine.
      Are you certain that every facial tissue you have ever used is really a Kleenex even if that is a trademarked name that has become so common it defines the item?

    2. Khatl Diamond

      A different facial tissue isn't gonna leave a totally different taste in my mouth :-)

    3. Santastico Diamond

      I fly over 150k miles with Delta every year and always on international business class. I never ever heard any FA call their sparkling wine champagne. They call sparkling wine.

    4. Khatl Diamond

      Maybe we're flying different routes! I've had Delta consistently call it champagne internationally since about the early 2010's... though I would note, I've not flown them as much the past (and instead been flying Virgin who still call it champagne).

  16. GB Guest

    Singapore airlines does not serve alcohol out of JFK nor out of FRA
    Happened to me on flights FRA - JFK ~ FRA
    MARCH 2023

    1. JW Guest

      They serve it once you are in the air, just not on ground.

  17. New Guest

    Must be something new. I was flying LOT, JFK-WAW on July 28, no issue. Champagne was served.

  18. Mark Guest

    It would be great to see a ranked list of best pre-departure beverages from the US. I was recently impressed by LH F serving Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle at JFK. And disappointed by SQ.

  19. Tony Guest

    It's very similar to cruise lines, if and when alcohol is served in port taxes have to be paid. Usually its by the passenger not the cruise line.

  20. jdink Member

    I've noticed that flying Business on Turkish out of USA. Glad they didn't because their non-alcoholic specialty beverages are actually very refreshing, and otherwise I probably wouldn't have even tried them!

    1. Baliken Member

      I find that with TK they don’t offer sparkling wine but if you ask for it they will get it for you. I’ve had this experience ex-ORD, YUL and CGK.

  21. I Love Dan Guest

    I wonder if this might also be a safety issue.
    If someone gets a little tipsy on the ground before takeoff and then there is a mechanical where they need to deplane, it would not be ideal for anyone.
    Furthermore, if there is an emergency on takeoff (when most emergencies occur), same issue if someone already had their fill on the ground. Just a thought.

    1. I Love Dan Guest

      Same reason why I don't take my shoes off until cruising altitude. I have friends who take sleeping pills who also do not take them until they're cruising.

    2. Mangiafiga Guest

      I'm the same. Keep them on and as soon as the seatbelt light is extinguished I leap out of my seat and into the toilet to change into PJs

  22. Tom Guest

    Would be curious to know what the taxes actually are. If an airline opens two bottles of $50 champagne for a 20 seat business cabin, what are they paying in tax? $5, $10, $50?

    1. LEo Diamond

      It depends how many bottle was opened and their custom value locally multiply by tax percentage.

  23. Gregg Guest

    Wrong wrong wrong. Excise taxes on alcohhace ZERO connection to the retail sales price. Do your homework!

    1. Will Guest

      Wrong, wrong, wrong. "Alcohhace" is not a word, and commas are required between your scolding words. Do your homework!

  24. George Romey Guest

    Most of the American flight attendants don't serve alcohol on the ground because they are lAAzy.

    1. FrequentWanderer Guest

      They're busy performing pre-departure sAAfety duties, like requesting extra seatbelt extenders from the ground crew and closing overhead bins that are half-full

    2. Eric Guest

      Nope, sometimes catering arrives late , most of the times the ice is melted, a lot of times the aircraft is on a quick turn, and on time departure takes precedence.

  25. Jordan Diamond

    I'm pretty sure you have covered this. I even commented as follows, and it holds true today.

    That fact that people need an alcoholic drink prior to departure, speaks volumes about the person and society. People who also avoid dry airlines amaze me.

    I'm not anti-alcohol at all and will have the occasional drink throughout the year, or just avoid entirely. Anyway, I guess people NEED their "spirits" and their "booooo ze" ;-)

    1. Samo Guest

      "That fact that people need an alcoholic drink prior to departure, speaks volumes about the person and society." - Or the airline they're flying with. I also got a bit drunk before boarding Motor Sich's AN-24 :D

    2. breathesrain Gold

      I don't think anyone said "need" in this article; maybe you're projecting? ;)

    3. Rjb Guest

      Air France would not serve alcohol from IAD on 26 Aug.

    4. James Guest

      I don’t think anyone “needs” an alcoholic drink before take off. It might be a nice treat to begin a long flight is all. I doubt anyone would swap airlines because of it.

    5. Chris Guest

      It's called "bonded liquor" and it's a tax issue on every international flight. Normally on large aircraft departing the USA (even us carriers) are not allowed to open liquor carts on the ground due to the tax issue. So like I work for aa and in premium cabins on Intl departures on large aircraft we have "pre departure champagne" that is catered seperatly outside the sealed carts and we serve water juice mimosas specialty juice...

      It's called "bonded liquor" and it's a tax issue on every international flight. Normally on large aircraft departing the USA (even us carriers) are not allowed to open liquor carts on the ground due to the tax issue. So like I work for aa and in premium cabins on Intl departures on large aircraft we have "pre departure champagne" that is catered seperatly outside the sealed carts and we serve water juice mimosas specialty juice specialty mimosas and champage only prior to take off. Now granted that's on large aircraft going to London or Rio or Milan etc... However on smaller planes like a 737 going miami to cancun I've always done a full pre departure bev service in fc(bc) prior to take off. I honestly don't think we are supposed to but I think it may depend on the destination country as well and their taxes and laws too.... Like central America caarribean México i dont remember NOT doing alcohol departing the USA and we do have to technically do special paperwork and seal the carts prior to arrival no one's does the paperwork but do seal the carts and on the ground in the foreign countries here were not supposed to serve alcohol on the ground I don't think but most of us do Cuz you forget your working Intl its a standard aircraft hat usually flies domestically you forget it's an Intl flight.... Only on big planes to major international Premium destinations does it matter more specifically London is baaad..... Absolutely must complete the paperwork and seal the carts before arrival in lhr.... They have called pursers back to the airport from their hotel after auditing the plane and finding errors so they (and the company) faced fines and discipline of course. Leaving most these big places it's "pre departure champagne" only until after takeoff and that's for tax purposes again. Yes the inflight champagne is usually much better than pre departure champagne.... I know in fc not bc (when aa still had 3 classes internationally) I only had 8 seats I wouldn't even bother fussing with the pre departure champagne and juices and crap I would offer full beverage of choice pre departure drinks whilst departing on the ground in the United States.... Its also a time vs capacity thing.... If you have 54 bc seats you can't physically offer full bev of choice on ground on the big planes so it's champagne juice mimosas water etc..... Its a confusing cluster mess of where u are what aircraft your on where your going and load factor. Caarribean central America and Mexico it's like domestic almpst except seal carts b4 landing but no. Paperwork..... We usually serve booze out of these places on ground in their countries or I know I have accidentally cuz I forget a 2 hr 737 flt isn't domestic ya know. Most times catering here tears open the cart to restock everything but the liquor beer and wines and returns the carts unsealed on a 737 in Mexico caarribean.... So then I just serve full alcohol.... No one ever seems to take or care about the bonded liquor paperwork but it is supposed to be like detrimental super important stuff but it's never checked or sought after so many planes into a country a day customs doesn't worry much about the liquor minis on an empty plane.... However I bet once in a blue moon they will do a spot audit and when they do those it's super by the book serious. Many people get on trouble with these they assume it'll be a wave through at entry customs (as it usually is) but every so often they tear crews apart..... We're either not looked at or really looked at.

  26. Jerry Diamond

    What is the official policy of US Carriers on short haul int'l (Mexico, Caribbean)? Historically, it seemed they'd never pay the tax (especially in Mexico), but I've noticed it has been more common lately (though not 100%). I've chalked this up to short-haul employees just not knowing, but I'd be curious what the actual policy is.

    1. Chris_ Gold

      I suspect the quantities are so small (vs larger aircraft), they just use the taxpaid carts that they use for domestic flights.

  27. Tim Dunn Diamond

    I suspect that part of the issue for an airline the size of Lot is also the accounting issues. The relatively small amount of tax they have to pay creates much more paperwork and channels to pay the taxes. Big airlines serve enough alcohol and do it worldwide that "it is worth it"

    1. tom Guest

      Probably correct. U.S. carriers serve a cheaper "Prosecco" rather than Champagne on the ground on international flights. The tax on Prosecco is cheaper. Those bottles are loaded separate from the international liquor kits. Oh, I forgot, American has eliminated Champagne in Business Class altogether. So, there are true savings!

    2. Gregg Guest

      Is wrong again. Prosecco is served because of the volume of champagne served predeparture (almost everyone in business class) versus in the air (a small subset).

    3. NedsKid Diamond

      I used to have finance functions for inflight catering at a US airline under my responsibilities. Not a terribly large airline, so probably more attuned to smaller cost differences. We only had a distributor/resell license in some states. So we only purchased in a few locations and then shipped out to a few other catering locations. Eventually with growth this got unwieldy and the cost savings were not worth the headache, including shrinkage (yeah, because...

      I used to have finance functions for inflight catering at a US airline under my responsibilities. Not a terribly large airline, so probably more attuned to smaller cost differences. We only had a distributor/resell license in some states. So we only purchased in a few locations and then shipped out to a few other catering locations. Eventually with growth this got unwieldy and the cost savings were not worth the headache, including shrinkage (yeah, because when a Budweiser truck literally pulls up ramp-side in Detroit and delivers into baggage carts for later shipment, none of that is gonna grow legs!), and we expanded to license in more places.

  28. Hodor Gold

    It'd be pretty cool to see an airline serving you a pre-departure beverage at your resort in the Maldives ;-)

  29. 305 Guest

    Same on a cruise ship when departing the US. Any drinks you order on departure day before sail away have tax added

  30. Alonzo Diamond

    Who is notified when alcohol is opened on the ground vs in the air? How would that authority know?

    1. tom Guest

      U.S. Customs can run spot check and issue fines. I doubt they have the manpower to actually do this, though.

    2. Alonzo Diamond

      A spot check how? In what way would they accomplish that? I'm generally curious.

    3. tom Guest

      International liquor kits are sealed. If Customs checks and the seal is broken, that would imply the flight attendants accessed liquor that has not incurred a tax. That would trigger a fine.

    4. yepnope Guest

      He’s asking how would anyone know when the bottle was opened. The bottle of dom will be opened 100%. It’s not staying sealed to be inspected by customs lol.

    5. tom Guest

      But the bottle of Dom is locked up in a sealed liquor kit until AFTER takeoff. Customs (if they ever show up) leave before takeoff. Then, the party can begin.

    6. NedsKid Diamond

      As others mentioned, the carts are sealed/locked. You usually see little plastic tags that clip through two holes in the cart door handle. They are easy to break and the crew sometimes has plenty extra, but they are individually numbered and tied to a manifest, especially those coming from a flight kitchen/catering facility. This is also why they completely de-cater then re-cater these aircraft versus just swapping out certain items, because they have to manifest...

      As others mentioned, the carts are sealed/locked. You usually see little plastic tags that clip through two holes in the cart door handle. They are easy to break and the crew sometimes has plenty extra, but they are individually numbered and tied to a manifest, especially those coming from a flight kitchen/catering facility. This is also why they completely de-cater then re-cater these aircraft versus just swapping out certain items, because they have to manifest the contents. And yes, some airlines will load pre-departure sparkling in a drawer in a metal Atlas box/container versus in a cart so that it is separate. Also during a delay they may "run out" of something only to have the same available once in the air. Customs does check more often than you would think.

    7. Alonzo Diamond

      Thank you. So you are saying customs may spot check from the time of boarding until takeoff? I'm assuming they are no longer able to check once the doors close and the plane pulls away from the gate, unless there is a severe delay.

  31. CERTIFIED Member

    Even if the real reason is the Flight Attendant simply doesn’t feel like opening a bottle of alcohol for you, why press the issue? The last thing I want, is anything that is served it with contempt.

    Alcohol is an addictive substance. If you are uncomfortable forgoing it, you may need professional treatment.

    1. Samo Guest

      Being curious isn't "pressing the issue". Ben wrote that the guy was chill and wasn't angry about it.

    2. Jim Lajuene Guest

      Alcohol is normally regulated by the States in the USA not federal after the passage of the 21st amendment. Even CBP takes taxes based on state of residence, so for example someone landing in Texas and staying in Texas in theory has to pay TABC taxes after landing (TABC collects at land borders and Galveston cruise port themsleves).

      Is there an FAA or other customs reg specific to the airlines I am not aware of?

    3. Albert Guest

      Does any airline serve sparkling wine pre-departure from Ireland?
      Ireland has an excise duty of EUR6.37 per bottle, which is much higher than anywhere else in Europe.
      Although divided by 6 J passengers, not that much.
      I think the point above about the administrative hassle of paying such taxes is probably key.

    4. Gregg Guest

      OMG. HERE WE GO! Cue the 'oh you want a drink? You must be an alcoholic' crowd. SIGH...

  32. Alec-14 Gold

    I’m okay with the airline having a rule against it to save money. I get annoyed when US flight attendants just choose not to because they don’t feel like it (and not cause we’re short on time).

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George Romey Guest

Most of the American flight attendants don't serve alcohol on the ground because they are lAAzy.

4
Tim Dunn Diamond

I suspect that part of the issue for an airline the size of Lot is also the accounting issues. The relatively small amount of tax they have to pay creates much more paperwork and channels to pay the taxes. Big airlines serve enough alcohol and do it worldwide that "it is worth it"

3
Alec-14 Gold

I’m okay with the airline having a rule against it to save money. I get annoyed when US flight attendants just choose not to because they don’t feel like it (and not cause we’re short on time).

3
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