The grounding of wine

Airlines were already cutting back on the quality of their wine offerings. And then the pandemic hit. Robert Joseph reports.

Photo by Emiel Molenaar on Unsplash
Photo by Emiel Molenaar on Unsplash

Some people have cocktail bars in their houses, others have tables with a few bottles of spirits and glasses. Until now, though, it was a rare home that could boast an airline drinks trolley from a Boeing 747. In September, however, Qantas sold off 1,000 of these trolleys for A$974.70 ($682) apiece.  

The sale of the metal trolleys was not directly connected with the Covid-19 pandemic — it resulted from the retirement of the Boeing airplane — but its timing, and the fact that the buyers received enough mini-bottles of wines and spirits to fill them, coincided with a crisis for anyone in the business of supplying wine to this sector.

Big wine buyers

In a normal year, British Airways (BA) spends around £13m ($16.5m) on wine for its economy/coach passengers and a similar amount on more premium fare for travellers seated at the front of the plane. Emirates, which claims to spend over twice as much as the UK carrier, is said to hold stock of nearly four million bottles. Since March 2020, very little of that wine has been served.

“It’s been a disaster,” says Rodger Craig of Inflight Initiatives, one of what he describes as “a handful” of specialist airline wine suppliers. “We normally deal with to 14 or 15 carriers at any time and are usually constantly sourcing and sending samples for tenders.”

But not at the moment. The airlines aren’t buying new stock. In some cases, they are struggling to dispose of wine they had already bought
“I have 20,000 litres of Italian red and 12,000 litres of Pinot Grigio sitting in a UK bond, that I can’t even give away,” Craig says. He is not speaking figuratively; he wanted to donate the bottles to the British National Health Service “to give the doctors and nurses a drink”, but someone would have to have paid UK excise duty and sales tax of £2.68 ($3.41) per bottle to get the wine out of bond.

Craig has seen his business change radically even before the impact of the pandemic, as airlines have been cutting budgets. BA which once poured first growths in First Class is now accused of giving Business Class passengers inexpensive wines on offer at a discount in UK supermarkets. But many carriers are spending less than they did. The wine in Business class might cost them $10, with First Class wines at $13, Craig reveals. This doesn’t make for a truly special experience.

Craig has also seen airlines go bankrupt. “My year began with the collapse in March of flybe,” he says, leaving him with 12,000 unsold bottles. Budget carriers like flybe, EasyJet and Ryanair normally treat onboard wine sales as a profit centre, alongside meals and duty free, and this model has also been increasingly adopted by national carriers on short-haul routes. But, as Craig says, it’s a small part of what they sell. And it comes at the possible cost of alcohol-induced misbehaviour. “Airlines don’t want drunk passengers.” 

Covid-19’s impact

The pandemic has had a dramatic effect on aviation, with the number of flights falling to 70,000 a day in September this year, compared to around 120,000 a day in 2019. S&P Global estimate that the number of passengers for 2020 will have been 60 to 70 percent smaller than in 2019, while the figure for 2021 is likely to be 30 to 40 percent lower than in that year. This compares to fall of 12 percent after the 9/11 attacks.
It’s not just the number of passengers and flights that has been slashed. After 9/11, it was still possible to enjoy wine on planes. Today meal and bar service are almost non-existent. So, as Craig says, “No one is putting alcohol on board.” 

Wine that would once have been served in the cabins has often been rerouted to business class and first-class lounges, but with the reduction in passenger traffic, consumption here has fallen too.

Craig remains optimistic that “things will return to normal” by 2023 or 2024, because “people love a glass of wine when they are in a plane – especially on a long-haul flight”. But for the moment, inflight wine is going to remain in the doldrums, and there will be little buying by airlines until they’ve disposed of the bottles in their warehouses. 

Robert Joseph

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