What Happens to Your Body When You Drink Alcohol on a Plane?

Posted by at 13:35

Soon the holiday season will again be upon us and the numbers of leisure travellers descending on our airports will peak. You know the feeling all too well: excitement; finally having the time to make a journey you’ve looked forward to; visiting relatives in far-off countries; a long-awaited hiking break; or even just some quality time to read a good book…. Whatever, it’s a well-earned opportunity to cross off something nice from your ‘to do’ list!

On arriving at the airport, before boarding your plane, you have time to drop by one of the tax-free shops, after which you allow yourself the luxury of an alcoholic beverage. It’s finally time to relax. Then, on board your flight, shortly after take-off the stewardess offers you a welcome drink. Wow, now your journey is really underway! And I can totally relate to the mood.

Wine on the plane

But… what exactly happens to your body when you drink alcohol on a plane?

What happens when you drink alcohol?

After drinking an alcoholic beverage what’s known as blood alcohol content (BAC) takes between 30 to 60 minutes to peak and reach its maximum effect. Needless to say, consuming several alcoholic beverages during a short period of time can easily mean you are expecting your body to cope with more alcohol than your liver can process. In such a case the excess alcohol will travel through your bloodstream un-metabolised and unchanged. The concentration of alcohol in the blood, or BAC, will then increase.

As it travels through your bloodstream, the alcohol eventually reaches your brain, where it acts as a sedative and slows down transmissions and impulses between the nerve cells that control your ability to think and move. Although alcohol is a depressant, it also removes inhibitions, which explains the sometimes happy and other times aggressive behaviour associated with drinking alcohol. It also increases the flow of fluid through your kidneys, increasing the likelihood of becoming dehydrated.

What happens when you drink alcohol on board a plane?

During a flight, the barometric pressure in the cabin of a plane is lower than it is in most places on earth. You can compare it with an altitude in the mountains of between 1,800 and 2,200 metres. This decreased pressure environment diminishes the body’s ability to absorb oxygen and it can produce light-headedness. We call this hypoxia. Generally speaking, this is not an issue but the feeling could be similar to the experience you have after drinking alcohol.

Therefore, if you drink alcoholic beverages during a flight you may notice it sooner, and so might the crew and other passengers if you drink too much. In other words, because of the lower level of oxygen in your blood, you may seem more drunk in the air than you would on the ground after consuming the same amount of alcohol. But, in fact, your BAC will show the same percentage as would be the case if you drank the same amount of alcohol on the ground under similar circumstances. A complicating factor is that the air in an aircraft is very dry and, coupled with the diuretic effect of drinking alcohol; you may become dehydrated much faster than you would on the ground.

So, to combat dehydration make sure you drink water with every alcoholic beverage. And minimise your intake of salty food, as this may have an adverse effect by making you more thirsty and encouraging you to drink at a faster rate.

Cabin attendant offers a drink

What is KLM’s policy on serving alcohol on board?

Policies on serving alcohol on board differ per airline and destination. At KLM you can prepare for your trip and can even check out the menu (including beverages) of your specific flight beforehand.

Inflight service

The safety, security and comfort of passengers and crew are of the highest priority to airlines. Unruly behaviour or acts by passengers, due to alcohol abuse/intoxication or otherwise, is an infringement of international law. The pilot in command of a flight is authorised to disembark or deliver an unruly passenger to a law-enforcement agency.

So, it’s better to be safe than sorry…and drink wisely on an aircraft.

Enjoy your trip!!

And should you have any other questions about flying healthily, please drop by at one of the Travel Clinics of KLM Health Services.

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43 Responses to What Happens to Your Body When You Drink Alcohol on a Plane?

  1. ton ijlstra

    i read your message on alcohol abuse or use in an airplane with great interest and it was very informative. However i was surprised by the statement on the legal position of the crew of the plane. you say: “Flight crew and cabin crew enjoy immunity from subsequent legal proceedings for any actions that they might have to take against an unruly passenger.” I can hardly believe that this is correct. To my knowledge the crew is subject to the jurisdiction of the ‘flag’ state (state of registration) of the airplane. So if the crew uses disproportionate violence against a passenger, the judicial authorities of the state of registration may have to deal with that. Am I correct here?

    regards

    ton ijlstra

    • Didi Aaftink

      Interesting question! I will get back to you!

      • Didi Aaftink

        Dear Ton, the immunity of the cabin crew in the handling of unruly passengers proves to be a complex legal concept and indeed subject to several legal conditions met. Unfortunately, however, the exact legal conditions on immunity of the cabin crew are beyond my expertise and the scope of my blog therefore I have deleted the remark. Thank you for your comment!

        • Leo

          I would expect the rules aboard an aircraft to be similar to those aboard a ship. The captain has the authority to restrain a person who poses a threat to the security of the vessel. The level of authority is quite high, so only flagrant unlawful treatment will be punishable.

          The crew operate under the captain’s authority, so the same applies to them.

  2. Ali

    Alcoholic beverage may not be served on board

    • Didi Aaftink

      Dear Ali, Thank you for your comment! It all depends on the airline you fly with!

  3. Siong

    Singapore go to Bali can drink ?

    • Didi Aaftink

      Dear Siong, flying KLM from Singapore to Bali, alcoholic beverages are served!

  4. Christine

    You’re dead right, KLM.

  5. Des

    Have a drink, enjoy the flight but never drink too much.
    Dont be so negative to ban alcoholic beverages
    Just because some people dont know how to behave doesnt mean that everybody who drinks some alcohol are drunks and are annoying on flights.
    I guess the flight stewards should be able to say sorry sir or madam you have had enough. Enjoy the rest of your flight by drinking lots of water!

    • Didi Aaftink

      Dear Des, Thank you for your comment! Unfortunately, although rare, that sometimes happens.

  6. Ria

    Ik heb het weleens meegemaakt dat de crew mensen te veel laten drinken en pas als ze lastig worden, niks meer geven. zelfs een ex-KLM stewardess op een vlucht van Ned naar Bon. Is het niet beter om een max aantal drankjes aan te houden? Of tenminste een betere controle te hebben over hoeveel een bepaalde passagier drinkt? Je hebt het gauw genoeg in de gaten wie het is/zijn.

  7. Barry

    I have travelled with KLM many, many times. I have stopped flying with them because on three separate flights, the cabin attendant has told me that I could not have two alcoholic drinks served at the same time. I always have a scotch and water and a beer on each flight. No more, no less. When I am told it is against company policy to serve me two drinks, I choose to travel with another airline who do not preach to me.

    • James

      Barry I agree, however there is no harm in drinking one. Pressing the call bell and when you have drank the drink have another.

      KLM is one of the last jewels in the sky!

  8. Steven

    Maybe it would be a good idea for KLM stewards to serve a cup of water with every alcoholic beverage that they serve on the flight. I sometimes feel awkward asking for both a beer and some water at the same time whilst on your flights and I can imagine that other people would as well.

    • ALETTA VANDERNAT

      When I fly I always have some wine and yes the crew always does offer water with the alcoholic beverage.

  9. Mrs Pauline Ashman

    HI how do I make a claim? we flew from Manchester to Paris then Paris to Vancouver but our bags did not arrive with us they were delivered to our hotel 28 hours later. My husband had to buy shorts and a top the next day while waiting for our bags to be delivered. I have all the baggage incident numbers and receipts but don’t know where to enter them can you help please.

  10. Lauri Beekmann

    Thanks a lot for this article. I think it is very important that airline companies turn more attention to this topic. And as we have all witnessed it gets more and more attention by media as well. Let me be a prophet for a moment and say that it is only a matter of time when alcohol will be banned from flights. The arguments to make that decision are piling up. I just mention the effect to others from one perspective pointing to couple of important groups. 1. Children. As a parent I avoid taking my children to bars or places where people drink. Moderately or not, that´s even besides the point. I understand that different parents might have different opinions on that, and I respect that. I´m just saying that if I have a principle that I avoid places (with my children) where people drink then, even though it is a location where I have purchased my seat, plane is one of the very few places where I cannot escape it. 2. Recovering addicts. And there are lots of them. Also people who knowingly avoid places where you could be tempted. And in most cases you can do that. But then there is a plane. And it is offered to you. Or even if not, your neighbour is drinking.
    So, I think there are major arguments that we hear soon: “This is non-drinking flight” :-) Thanks again for a great article.

  11. Diego

    Your policy on alcohol is very erratic. It is not properly disclosed and it leads to abuses from the crew

    • Leo

      I think the policy is stated on every issue of the Flying Blue magazine (in your seat pocket).

  12. Joanne

    Im flight to Stockholm soon minimum you give how many kg for the luggage?

  13. Syed Shah

    Great article, very informative. Thank you for this posting.

  14. caridad nisbeth

    my next flight will be for sure with klm

  15. HPS VIRK.

    Turn every flight into a pleasurable trip, by restricting consumption of alcoholic drinks. Getting intoxicated means inviting unnecessary troubles, which could resultantly lead to serious mental and physical harassment.

  16. Stevefwwong

    Thank for educating people who are not a good drinkers

  17. Sheila

    KLM could also serve up frozen magaritas, pina coladas, a good variety of martinis, disaronno and amarula. This way passengers also get more water, nuts and fruit

  18. Eilif Barstad Thorkildsen

    I agree,it’s better to minimase Alcoholic drinks, and you will feel better at your destination…

  19. Anih Anthony Sunday

    It has happened to me on several occasions though I don’t drink so much but I noticed that each time I take alcohol on the flight I usually become uncomfortable and feeling a kind of vomitting which never occurs anyway.Now that i know,any wine henceforth will go with water.

  20. Camillo Di Sciullo Ursini

    Very nice company !

  21. joey

    I do not think a ban on alcoholic drinks is the way to go, I travel with KLM to Chengdu China every year, I have a complimentary beer after the flight as left Amsterdam, I have a bottle of wine with my dinner , and during the night whilst watching the on board entertainment i enjoy my be 3/4 more beers , and I have no problem, I am always polite and courtesy to the cabin crew and if get chance always have a little chat with them , so as from my perspective , my enjoyment should not be taken away from me as I say it is all part of the experience when travelling long haul with KLM with regards Mr J Harland

  22. Ellie Brigden-Lindhout

    I Always have 2 wines between Ams-San Francisco. Okay, am 76, but I never felt sick or whatsoever. But as its a long trip, it gives something to do, whilst eating and reading my tablet,e-books. As the journey is very borring, the wine helps a little to feel a bit calm. As I hate the long flights.

  23. Erlend

    Hello. I am a frequent flyer from norway, tough i never travel with KLM due to I am a oneworld customer.
    But alcohol on fligts, i am always careful. Only one or two drinks, to respect the crew, who are there primarely focused on safety, i fly most my flights on buisness class, and it’s way to focused on drinking, and also due to the great service they provide, they dont say no to people that had to much, mostly ending up with drunk people. I dont say to ban alcohol, just dont encourage it to the level it is now. BTW love this blog, really interesting

  24. Tak C. Lee

    I have never traveled on a KLM flight because I am a Gold Card member of a One World Alliance airline. But your picture shows a bottle of wine served with some decent looking food. That looks very attractive. But is that real ?

    • Heinz

      As a frequent traveler on KLM long distance flights, I can confirm that this is their standard meal in Economy cabin.
      And with regards to the alcohol policy, I must say that I really enjoy a red wine along with dinner plus a Scotch as digestive on a night flight, just to sleep well. But of course on the other hand, I remember two recent situations of passengers getting mad, needing medical assistance, almost causing unscheduled stops.
      So there are the two sides of the coin. I hope that cabin crew has always a good feeling for who should still get their drink and who better does not. Ultimately, they are responsible for our safety, not for our entertainment or food / drink service. If everyone on board understands this, life would be so much easier.

  25. Richard

    Nice to see KLM are knowing this
    Look forward to travelling with them again

  26. RMAU

    You’ve probably noticed that gum is unaffected by the crushing of your teeth — that’s kind of the point. So when you swallow the gum, it moves through your digestive tract into your stomach as one giant wad.

  27. LOLITA M. BALBOA

    Very nice blog and educational indeed. KLM is always my airline! See you this mid-September, 2016.

  28. Leo

    Why won’t you make it a standard policy to serve a glass of water with every serving of alcohol? The flight attendant could automatically pour a glass of water unless the passenger actively and specifically declined. Some flight attendants do so on KLM flights, and I’ve always appreciated the thought.

  29. mike

    I have worked in the retail and food industry. I would raise it and say ban alcohol on flights and no drunks allowed on plane. Drunks are #1 hazard to front line staff anywhere. Especially when large strong and armed with knife. Apologies afterward but not when drunk. Seen it too many times.

  30. VICTOR Rugatsira

    Thank you for this enlightening masterpiece.

  31. king

    Hi have used KLM from SPAIN to PHILIPPINES several times find the staff great and very helpful on the KLM plane But must add the SERVICE AIR FLIGHT FROM SPAIN TO SCUPHOLM is a disappointment every time am sorry to say ,lets the side down very sad

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