“It can hardly be a coincidence,” wrote Douglas Adams, “that no language on earth has ever produced the expression, ‘As pretty as an airport.’”
Oh, Douglas. If only the fates hadn’t sent you hitchhiking into oblivion mere months before 9/11, you would have known the true story of airport ugliness. The full-body pat-downs. The spiraling scanners from Quantum Leap. The X-ray machines that turn every airport into The House of Male Sterilization. Combine that with the worst food not served at Denny’s and the longest lines outside Pyongyang, and visiting an airport today is like being locked in a 21st-century iron maiden.
And just wait until you step on the flying buses they dare call airplanes today. Once buckled in, you need to put on the final cheer scene from Bring It On just to get the flight attendant to notice you long enough to order a $7 Miller Lite. And by the third you’ve already got the flight attendant staring down her beak at you, wondering who the fuck you think you are, daring to ask to pay for a fourth Miller Lite.
“Do you really need another beer?” she will ask, as if you just demanded a lighter for your crack-pipe. “Because I think you’ve had quite enough.”
It is for these reasons the airport bar is such a necessity, such a storied and valuable part of flying. They’re not just for lubing up before a flight—they’re there to remind us we are still part of a civilization. Leaning against an airport bar with a beer and a shot of Bulleit is therapy. Your doctor can prescribe Xanax, but only the airport bartender can get you what you need to wash it down with.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when you could bring your own booze with you, even if open-container laws prevented you from opening it publicly. Unfortunately, thanks to the al-Qaeda Chemistry Department, those days are long gone. Apparently, terrorists can now blow up planes with any bottle of liquid, so long as it’s bigger than 100ml and isn’t stored in a Ziploc bag.
And no, they don’t make exceptions. In August 2015, according to Time magazine, a Chinese woman found this out the hard way when she went through security with a $200 bottle of Remy Martin XO. When they wouldn’t let her take it through, she drank the entire bottle right before their eyes, collapsed, and was barred from her connection to Wenzhou.
There is, however, a way around it. If you can get your hands on the mini-bottles they used to serve on airplanes, then you can bring as many through as you like. James Fallows of The Atlantic discovered this in 2012. He writes, “Not long after I figured out this loophole, I tossed my baggie full of minis in the X-ray bin and the TSA screener looked at them and gave me a broad grin and said, ‘Now there’s a man that knows how to fly.’ To which I could only grin and nod in agreement.”
Another option is to just get shit-faced before you hit security. Often there are a couple landside bars—if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself at Gimpo Airport in Seoul, that’s the only bar. The problem with this, of course, is you don’t know how long your X-ray, body-check, and anal-probe is going to take and you run the risk of missing your flight. You’re also more tempted to give security that slap across the jowls they’ve been begging for since your first flight to Disney World, age six. Plus you’re just going to want to keep plowing through once you’re on the other side anyway.
So generally, bringing your own booze across security, or getting inebriated beforehand, isn’t much of an option. We’ll get back to the airport bar in a moment, but what are your options otherwise?
In some countries they’ll have beer in the corner stores and you can knock them back at the gate. Sometimes restaurants and take-outs will have booze and beer cheap—thank you, Saigon Burger King. But these places are few and far between. When flying internationally, one option is duty-free.
Duty-free liquor is not for consumption in the airport, airplane, or anywhere except the country you’re landing in, so that means you have to be sneaky about it. Using the bathroom stalls to spike soda or juice is one option. Emily O’Grady, 25, was flying to Bali with a stop-over in Singapore when she and a drunk friend decided to try the duty-free route. “At around 10 pm we decided it was time to drink,” she says. “Since the bars were closed, we went to duty-free and bought a couple of bottles of vodka.”
At a movie lounge upstairs, they cracked the bottles, filled up empty cups, and got busy while watching The Sixth Sense.
“As always, we thought we were being sneaky,” O’Grady says. “The entire room reeked of vodka by the time we left at 6 am, and I definitely picked up on a few unimpressed looks. But we were drunk and off to Bali so we were happy!”
At Mumbai airport, Ashley Breton was so irritated at having to spend a night at Mumbai airport that the duty-free clerk cheerfully informed her that the best thing to do was just guzzle a bottle of liquor in the bathroom, which she did with a friend of the opposite sex. “He and I took turns drinking in the loo until his plane was ready for boarding and half the bottle was consumed,” Breton said.
Generally though, it is the airport bar where most of us get liquored up. I searched desperately for good stories from airport bartenders, but none would open up—generally, drinking at an airport bar is boring. Everyone’s constantly checking their watches, the most common conversation is “Where are you going?” and everyone knows exactly where the night is going to end.
Ben Robinson, in Thrillist, put it best when he wrote, “Every single person [at the airport bar] is either traveling or just got off work ringing up $4 Snickers bars and Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazines at Hudson News. Most of them are alone. They are all explicitly focused on mitigating a bit of the horror of airports via drinking.”
Airport bars are so boring that possibly the unfunniest SNL sketch of all time—if such a thing can be quantified—aired on Season 26 and was set in an airport bar. It involved Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon on a date, and Shannon objecting repeatedly to being asked where she lives (HAHAHAHAHAHA). They never explain why they’re at an airport bar but I’ll give SNL the benefit of the doubt and say they were riffing on how awful airport bars are by setting their most awful sketch in one.
There’s no chance you’ll hook up at an airport bar, despite what some films (Bounce, Up in the Air, Digital Playground’s Fly Girls) might make you think. As Julie Fishman wrote in Mandatory, “Surrounded by strangers, there’s a certain intrigue in meeting a sexy someone at the airport. But believe us, the chances that she’s ‘the one’ are low and the chances she’s up for a quickie in the men’s room are even lower. Feel free to flirt but know this: You’re never going to see her again so don’t blow your expense check on someone who’ll be on her way to Topeka in 25 minutes.”
It doesn’t even work for gay dudes. Bryan Bove, 28, thought he was about to get lucky with a guy at the airport while waiting for a flight in San Francisco. “We were chatting on an app and all of a sudden, he was like ‘I’ll come there, let’s have a drink.’ And he just Olivia Pope’d his way through security,” Bove says. “But when I found out he worked for the government and went to Berkeley, I regretted taking a whore’s bath in the men’s room and buying him an overpriced beer.”
The best part about drinking at an airport bar is that, like a Vegas casino, there are usually no open or close times. Everyone is on a different time zone, so ordering a shot of Smirnoff with a beer back at seven in the morning does not elicit the moans of condescension it would in the landside world. As Anna Turner wrote in Modern Lifestyle Magazine, “Out in the real world, ordering a round of shots at 9am might land you on the latest episode of Intervention, but airports are a sort of time vortex where anything goes, pretty much anytime.”
The worst part about drinking at an airport bar is that, definitely unlike a Vegas casino, the drinks are massively overpriced and usually pretty weak. You’re usually looking at $9 for a single rum and Coke, which is why you should always get a double, in life as in the airport’s world of the undead.
Then there’s the airport lounge. Though usually reserved for the bell-ends in first class, you can often get in with the right credit card, Air Miles plan or accent. If you’ve never been before, it’s like that scene in The Simpsons when Homer gets the key to the executive washroom at the power plant. There’s unlimited beer, wine, liquor, food and the most horrible people this side of the Hudson River. Don’t talk to them, as they do not want to talk to you. What you need to be doing is drinking your fill, if only as revenge for the sodomizing you’re about to get on their airplane.
Sometimes there are crashing options, as some people have parties in airports, and you can sneak your way in. Victoria Keating, 37, was flying from Salzburg back to London when her flight was delayed by a snowstorm. Broke, bored and freezing, she and a fellow strandee decided to explore.
“On the top floor of the airport in a tiny dingy area reserved for corporate functions, we stumbled upon and were cordially invited into someone’s company party,” she says. “It was complete with Russian strippers on the bar, free booze and platters of food which we stashed in napkins in our oversized coat pockets.
“What had been a pretty annoying and dreary delay had suddenly turned into a debaucherous evening with bouncing boob tassels and tacky 80s disco lights. Needless to say, we stayed as long as we could until we were discovered by the boss, which resulted in us being kicked out.”
Afterward, they passed out “on the cold tile floor,” their bellies full of illicit company liquor.
Outside the airport lounge, striking up a conversation with your neighbor rarely hurts, particularly because you know you’ll never see them again. Margaret Richards, 36, has long enjoyed random conversations with airport strangers.
Sadists argue that drinking in the airport is a bad idea altogether because the effects of alcohol double (or triple, or quadruple) on the airplane. This is bullshit—the effects of the alcohol are the same. What does multiply manifold in the air is the power of your hangover, thanks to the cabin pressure and the inaccessibility of large amounts of water, not to mention enough liquor to maintain. If you’re just on the JFK-Dulles shuttle you’ll probably be okay, but if you’re on a marathon trans-oceanic hell-flight, then this can be a serious problem.
The answer is to bring a half-dozen empty water bottles through security with you, fill them up at water fountains before your flight, and then stash them for the flight. Pack plenty of painkillers, prescription if possible, as they are not only stronger but will put you to sleep. And go to your doctor before you fly and claim you have a crippling fear of the air, whether that’s true or not. She’ll prescribe you Xanax or Ambien, or some similar joy, which will at least conk you out for most of your headache. And at least most international flights still have free wine.
The airport is no place for a civilized human being to spend time—it is only ever a temper tantrum away from a Hobbesian Battle Royale of gnashing teeth and torn limbs. Terrorists don’t attack airports and airplanes because they’re easy targets. Far from it. They attack them because they know most people at the airport crave death.