Flying drunk

September 28, 2021

Flying from Raleigh to Minneapolis last Thursday evening on Delta’s nonstop dinky CRJ900, I was seated across from a fellow who proceeded to get knee-walking drunk in just over two hours.

And I mean DEAD DRUNK!  Pick your synonym: In alphabetical order, the man was besotted, blind, blitzed, blotto, bombed, boozy, crocked, fried, gassed, hammered, inebriated, intoxicated, juiced, loaded, looped, oiled, pickled, pie-eyed, plastered, potted, ripped, sloshed, smashed, sottish, soused, sozzled, squiffed, stewed, stiff, stinking, stoned, tanked, tight, tipsy, or wasted.  He fit all those descriptors and more. It was an impressive achievement in so short a period.

I hadn’t witnessed such a meltdown at 30,000 feet in many years. At one time—in a more innocent era of flying—it wasn’t so uncommon to see someone get three sheets to the wind on a plane. No one really minded, and we all just went with it.  Let them cut loose and enjoy life!  I even did it myself once or twice way back in the eighties or nineties, once guzzling too much spectacular Bordeaux in good vintages on the BA Concorde to London. I wasn’t scolded for it, just hungover.

Not these days, however.  Since Covid hit, it’s become hard to get even a single serving of an alcoholic beverage on board, let alone a debauching quantity.  Drinking is discouraged after too many examples of abysmally stupid behavior by infrequent flyers ranting about some vague “freedom” guaranteeing their right not to wear a mask aboard aircraft and then getting duct-taped to their seats.

So how did this particular incident happen?  It began when I was upgraded to first class and assigned seat 1C across from the single seat 1A in the bulkhead row.  Here’s the way I described the unpleasant experience at the time:

Relieved to be upgraded and looking forward to decompressing, a drunk next to me ruined my flight.  The young man was 31 years old, he told me, slurring his words, going to Minneapolis for a weekend wedding. He somehow managed to pound down at least eight or nine drinks that I counted, given him in rapid succession by the lead Sky West CRJ900 flight attendant who should have cut him off after many fewer.

He was nearly incoherent before we began descent and kept demanding more drinks all the way to the gate. Got up several times while taxiing until I managed to get him seated again. His mask was hanging down around his neck because he was too unaware to notice.

It’s been a decades since I’ve seen a guy that drunk on a plane. In the narrow cabin he was in the single seat across from my aisle seat and mid-flight started physically touching me, patting and hitting my shoulder and wanting to repeatedly shake my hand and get his face real close to mine as he leaned over. I submitted and didn’t react negatively because he was way beyond reason, and I couldn’t risk a scene that would invariably involve the law–and me, not just him. So I played along and kept him calm and happy.

I jokingly commented that I hoped he had big bottle of aspirin.  He laughed and replied, yes, and that he intended to take plenty when he got to the hotel. 

Not driving, I hope?  Nope, he said, planning to get an Uber to wherever he was staying.  I wondered if he would even recall where that was.

All the time that the guy was physically touching me and leaning close into my personal space the flight attendants did nothing to stop him: no verbal warnings, no approaching us to separate him from me, nothing. I was real careful to keep my hands down, folded in my lap, lest my movements appear threatening. The lead FA stayed in her seat facing us, but said or did nothing.  It was entirely up to me to keep things calm, always tricky when dealing with someone detached from reason.  I didn’t like doing it.

I could see a fuse might get lit, but luckily avoided that happening. The FAs thanked me profusely when I left.  I don’t think they knew how to handle the situation, even though they’d enabled it. Think of the crude but vivid term “s**tfaced” to get the picture of the fellow.

Not relaxing for me at all. I had one drink right after takeoff and then switched to water because I didn’t want alcohol in my system should law enforcement get involved. I stayed stone sober to keep me and all aboard safe. In effect I did the flight attendants’ job. The guys in first class sitting behind me whispered thanks, too. They seemed as worried about the situation exploding as I was. We were lucky that the man was in good, as well as high, spirits.

So whose fault was it?  Sure, the fellow shouldered part of the blame by not exercising self-restraint.  But in my opinion it was principally the flight attendants who let this happen.  They should have cut him off way before he reached his state of unreason. 

What should be the on-board alcohol limit?  Two drinks seems to me not very generous, but eight or nine risks an ugly scene even for a hardened imbiber.  I don’t know what’s reasonable. I just know I don’t ever want a repeat of last Thursday night.

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