Blame pre-flight nerves or early vacation enthusiasm, but air travel and alcohol are closely associated. Bars are familiar airport fixtures, and flight attendants ensure access to booze continues after takeoff. There’s even the widely held notion that alcohol has an increased effect at higher altitudes – a belief without much scientific support but plenty of placebo potential.
Of course, alcohol isn’t the only substance flyers consume – people often use sleeping pills to doze on long flights or anti-anxiety medications to quell phobias related to flying. Then there’s the issue of smuggling illicit drugs through the air, an ever-evolving battle between authorities and traffickers (“cocaine pants” are apparently an ineffective tactic). We wondered about people’s real experiences with consuming and concealing substances on flights. So we surveyed more than 1,000 people on the subject.
Our findings reveal how intoxicated most passengers get when they travel by plane and how bold those who sneak substances can be. Moreover, our data show that getting wasted can get pretty ugly thousands of feet above sea level. To learn the truth about how drugs and alcohol actually mix with air travel, keep reading.
The majority of respondents had used substances at least once while traveling by plane; merely 26 percent said they’d never consumed intoxicants when flying. Understandably, travelers consumed alcohol more often than illicit substances of any kind, with 57 percent reporting drinking without using other drugs. Another 12 percent had combined alcohol with other substances, and 8 percent admitted to misusing nonprescribed pharmaceuticals. While taking anti-anxiety drugs might seem like a convenient way to calm fears of flying, experts warn that even occasional off-prescription use can have serious health consequences.
Our data also revealed substantial differences in substance consumption at various stages of plane travel. Notably, marijuana consumption – by means of both smoking and edibles – was relatively common among those who used substances before reaching the airport. This finding likely reflects the danger and difficulty of using marijuana while at the airport or during a flight. Even in states where recreational use is legal, airport areas past security are federal territory, meaning cannabis possession is still a crime.
If most travelers have used substances during air travel before, what motivates drinking and drug use in this context? More than 7 in 10 respondents cited a desire to relax, suggesting most flyers are simply interested in taking the edge off. Another 39 percent said they sought to ease anxiety when using substances while flying. Indeed, aviophobia, the intense or irrational fear of flying, affects between 2.5 and 6.5 percent of the population according to some estimates. Our findings suggest that many in this group may be self-medicating.
Alcohol was the most common substance consumed in-flight, likely because it’s sold in the aisle and free for many first-class passengers. Marijuana edibles and nonprescribed drugs ranked second and third respectively. Interestingly, smoking marijuana was the fourth most common form of in-flight substance consumption, despite the obvious challenges related to disguising smoke while in the air. However, vaping is a popular method smokers use to conceal the potent smell of marijuana. The stakes are certainly high – in the past, airplanes have been forced to make an emergency landing when a passenger attempted to smoke cigarettes or marijuana onboard.
Despite significant legal risks, 1 in 10 passengers admitted to sneaking drugs onto a plane in the past. The most popular stowaway location for illicit substances was inside a carry-on bag; 56 percent of individuals who had sneaked drugs onto a flight did so in this manner. Another 40 percent said they’d placed drugs in a personal item, such as a purse. While these methods may seem brazen to some readers, they reflect the fact that airport security personnel are not focused on drug interdiction. TSA scanners, for example, are designed to detect explosives or weapons, meaning drugs can often pass through.
However they hid their drugs, half of the respondents who sneaked illicit substances onto a flight said it was easy to do so. Marijuana edibles were the most common form of drug smuggled onto a flight: Ostensibly, these could be passed off as normal baked goods or candy. Yet, nearly as many respondents said they’d smuggled marijuana onboard in its smokeable form, raising the question of how these passengers evaded detection, particularly with regard to its smell.
Plastic sandwich bags were the most common method of containing the scent of cannabis, although 21 percent took the additional precaution of using vacuum-sealed bags instead. Other folks opted to mask the smell of pot with alternative scents. Sixteen percent of individuals used perfume or cologne to do the trick, and room deodorizers were equally popular.
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Airline alcohol prices can get fairly steep; a single beer can cost $7 or more on domestic flights. Therefore, it’s no surprise that our respondents reported spending an average of $25 on alcohol per flight. Interestingly, a significant portion of men and women reported generosity from another passenger in this regard. More than a quarter of women said a stranger had purchased a drink for them, and nearly 24 percent of men said the same. That spirit of sharing worked both ways, although men were more likely than women to buy a drink for a fellow passenger.
Age and in-flight intoxication seem inversely correlated: Millennials were the most likely generation to get tipsy or drunk when flying. Gen Xers were substantially more likely to report flying sober, and 60 percent of baby boomers said they flew without a buzz. As one might expect, increased consumption seemed to raise the odds of unfortunate outcomes. Millennials were three times more likely than any other age group to admit vomiting due to in-flight drinking.
Apparently, this sort of issue occurs fairly often on flights – nearly a quarter of individuals said they’d seen someone throw up from drinking on a flight before. For some airlines, alcohol-related incidents have become a recurring challenge. In fact, European carrier Ryanair recently announced plans to lobby for drinking restrictions in airports. In a statement, the company charged that passengers often board planes dangerously intoxicated, creating safety concerns for airlines.
Of those who had attempted to sneak drugs onto planes in the past, only a fraction had been caught. But among those who were apprehended by authorities, serious consequences were not uncommon. Thirty percent of respondents who reported being caught were arrested. Another 57 percent said they were forced to pay a fine.
Additionally, not all consequences related to flying and substances involve law enforcement: Many incidents entail health scares or potential embarrassment instead. One respondent told us his friends struggled to wake him after he’d consumed too much Xanax. One woman reported vomiting multiple times on a flight following a severe hangover. Still, another woman was chastised by the flight crew after a drunken altercation with her boyfriend disturbed fellow passengers.
Our results suggest that in-flight intoxication occurs quite frequently – and often with alarming intensity. Certainly, many passengers are responsible when indulging in alcohol on planes and others have legitimate reasons for taking prescribed medications while flying.
Yet, for those inclined to overdo it or who assume the risks of bringing drugs onboard, potential legal consequences loom large.
Safety and security are authorities’ priorities – act recklessly, and you may see a jail cell rather than your intended destination.
Of course, one need not fly to experience severe repercussions related to drugs and drinking. If substance use is causing distress or difficulty for you or someone you love, expert treatment is warranted.
Yet, with so many treatment options available, searching for the single best program can be confusing.
Delphi Behavioral Health Group can help guide you through a range of possibilities, tailoring recommendations to your particular needs.
Learn more about how we make recovery possible by exploring our treatment resources today.
We collected responses from 1,137 participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. In this study, there were 1,137 participants, 41 percent were women, and 59 percent were men. These participants ranged in age from 18 to 76 with a mean of 33 and a standard deviation of 10.85. Of the participants who participated in this study, those that indicated that they have not traveled by plane in the past year and those who’d never been under the influence of any drugs or alcohol were excluded from the study.
To focus more on how passengers are concealing the smell of these drugs, a supplementary survey of 150 people was conducted. For this survey, those that indicated that they have not traveled by plane in the past year and those that have never been under the influence of any drugs or alcohol were also excluded from the supplementary survey as well.