Airplane Drinking

My name is Sara and I’m an alcoholic; I did some of my best drinking on airplanes. 

By the time I was eighteen, I had a fake ID, a rich boyfriend who lived on the other side of the country, and a fear of flying which had conveniently developed right around the time I first heard the phrase “liquid courage.” It added up to a lot of in-flight beverage service. 

At first I drank Bloody Marys, because they seemed to me the archetypal airplane drink: I remembered my mother ordering them on international flights when I was a child. Most often, she just drank the Mr. T’s Tomato Juice mix and slipped my father the vodka bottle, which he, ever moderate and miserly, would take back to the hotel and have later, over ice. But there must have been times when she kept them for herself. 

My mother used to joke that she became an alcoholic because of her love for miniatures: all those little bottles jingling in the drink cart as it passes you in the aisle, a spectrum of blue and green and clear glass, like so many toy soldiers standing at attention. I know what she means: in a sick way I get the same feeling of awe and wonder looking into a hotel mini-bar as I do peering into a child’s immaculate doll-house. 

There was something about the airport bar that seemed to sum up my young life, an itinerant childhood spent always on the move: the aura of nervous excitement, the tearful reunions and farewells, and (always, in the background that thing which I was trying to drown out) a vague sense of foreboding. Eventually, I lost that rich boyfriend, and the excuses for east-coast jaunts. But strangely, my drinking remained colored by the experience of mile-high cocktails. Once, I made a date take me to an airport bar. This was pre-9/11, and I thought it would be romantic to watch the people coming and going over over-priced drinks.  (Hell, I wasn’t paying. But I guess I forgot how much they water them down.)

I discovered that you could buy alcohol miniatures at liquor stores, and I often traveled with my own version of the drink-cart, showing up at the party with a round of ready-made shots. I was a flight attendant, everywhere I went. Once, when I produced a travel-size whiskey from the bottom of my purse on our way to a bar, a woman I had only just met said, “I love you.”

When I did fly, I showed up to the airport earlier, spent longer in the bar, and my in-flight drink changed from Bloody Mary to Jack Daniels and Coke, because, I discovered, you could keep ordering cokes and refilling them under the fold-down tray from the fifth you had stashed in your carry-on. (Nobody, but nobody could drink that much tomato juice!) Of course, this once prompted the loudspeaker’s stern warning: “Folks, this is just a reminder that you may not consume alcohol that you have brought onto the plane yourself!” I’ve never heard such an announcement on any flight before or after, so I assume that this had to do with me. And the seatmate who likely ratted me out. 

Alcoholism is progressive, and at the end of my drinking days, I would unabashedly ask the airport bartender for the strongest thing on the menu—I remember one particularly demoralizing moment when the young man looked at me and said, ‘Do you mean strong as in flavor, or strong as in alcohol content?’ I would drink on top of the Xanax prescription I’d conned a doctor into giving me, and (yes, once or twice) I plucked a few of those gems out of that rolling treasure chest when, at the back of the plane, I pretended to be waiting for the bathroom and the flight attendant’s back was turned, microwaving a ham and cheese croissant for 38C. The last time I flew drunk I missed my flight. I was in the bar just adjacent to the gate, drinking a made-up beverage with a made-up name, something to go with the clean, modern Japanese-American décor of the place, in a revamped wing of JFK. It had vodka in it. It came with an orchid. I wonder how many times they called my name.  

My people, the ones I see at the meetings I now attend in church basements, often have their own airplane stories, and I’ve heard some good ones, though they are not mine to share. I’ll just say that I feel very fortunate that no plane ever made an extra stop because of me, and that I’ve not had the pleasure of having an armed escort waiting for me at an unfamiliar gate.

Now when I fly, and the beverage cart stops beside me to Pepsi my fellow passengers, its drawer agape, revealing the (now, plastic) mini-bottles, the metal cart becomes personified: it’s that jackass at the airport bar, encouraging everyone to take shots with him, offering to buy the round, louder than he should be, no sense of the fact that his shirt tails are untucked; his hair is askew, his eyes glazed—feigned jollity barely masking the distinct aroma of aggression. He’s the one you’re half sorry for and half worried is going to be a hazard on his flight, wherever-he’s-going-and-you-hope-it’s-not-with-you. I know him well. I think we used to drink together. But I’ve turned the plane toward a different destination now.


Sara Elle is a pseudonym. Given that the author speaks frankly about being in Alcoholics Anonymous and that one of AA's tenets maintains strict anonymity at the level of “press, radio, and film,” this author cannot be revealed by her own name. Suffice it to say that the author has many interests besides alcohol and air travel, which include in no particular order: fashion, food, horror film, teaching, writing, and being a mother.

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