If alcohol promotes conviviality, then the friendliest skies of any in the US hover above a handful of cities—those en route to which passengers consume the most amount of booze.
You'd expect Vegas to top the list, and it does. But Seattle? Passengers bound for second-ranked Seattle, according to a recent analysis, are drinking more than coffee.
These rankings are the work of GuestLogix, Toronto supplier of in-flight payment systems to some 90 percent of North American airlines. The company analyzed the inflight sales of five carriers between November 2013 and February 2014, breaking sales down into categories including comfort items (pillows, headsets, in-flight entertainment, etc.), food (both fresh and packaged) and beverages. Sales of liquor, beer and wine accounted for 99 percent of all beverage dollars spent by passengers.
During the three-month period studied, beverage sales onboard flights to Las Vegas totaled $2.69 million, or about $93 per flight. Seattle's average per flight was $79. Other very friendly skies belonged to Fort Lauderdale ($68), and San Francisco and Phoenix (tied at about $65 each).
Skies over Elmira, New York, weren't especially friendly ($28). Those over Scranton ($23) were dour.
Ilia Kostov, GuestLogix's executive vice president for sales and marketing, tells ABC News that a variety of factors determine how much alcohol gets consumed on any given flight. Longer flights—those lasting 3 hours or more—typically enjoy higher consumption. Both Vegas and Seattle, he says, are transcontinental destinations. "There's definitely a correlation between sales per flight and flight duration," he says. The size of the plane also is a factor: "The bigger the plane, the more passengers aboard, the higher the beverage sales."
Passenger mindset also matters: Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorksCompany, a leading consultancy on airline ancillary revenue (revenue from baggage fees, re-booking fees and sources over and beyond ticket sales) says many Vegas-bound passengers are heading off on a vacation and want to start their partying early, before they land. The same probably cannot be said for Elmira.
Carriers increasingly depend on ancillary revenue for their profits. A 2013 report by IdeaWorksCompany and CarTrawler, a provider of car rental systems, estimated that the world's airlines now get close to $43 billion a year from ancillary sources, up from $23 billion in 2010.
Fees for checked bags, says Sorensen, dwarf what airlines get from selling alcohol. The difference, though, is that while baggage fees have plateaued, beverage sales and other onboard sales are continuing to grow.
The airlines that get the most revenue from their beverage sales, Sorensen tells ABC News, are those that "think like a bartender."
"If you walked into a bar and got a free soda," he asks, "what would that do to sales?" Many customers would take the free soda and skip buying an alcoholic drink—or any other drink for which they have to pay. The same holds true in the air, he says. Smart carriers, he says—the ones with the highest alcohol sales--don't offer free beverages.
Virgin America does something else that's smart, he says: Not only does Virgin America let you order cocktails from your seatback, it lets you run an open tab. Allowing passengers to keep an open tab, he says, powerfully promotes sales: "Would you order desert, if the restaurant closed out your check after the entrée?"