Even if weed is legal where you are, airlines might deny you boarding
Airlines’ contracts of carriage — the legal agreement a passenger accepts when they buy a ticket — say that passengers may not be allowed to fly if they appear “intoxicated or under the influence of drugs.” That means they could be kept from boarding or removed from a plane once on board.
It’s not just airline policy: Federal aviation regulations say that no airline may allow anyone to board a plane if the passenger appears to be intoxicated. That can include intoxication from drugs such as marijuana, even in cities or states where they’re legal or decriminalized.
“If you plan to consume alcohol before your flight, remember that the airline’s gate agent may not let you board the aircraft if you appear to have had too much,” the Federal Aviation Administration wrote in a post on Medium last year. “So, if you have one too many in the airport and the flight crew won’t allow you to board, remember they are just obeying federal regulations and keeping the rest of the passengers safe.”
This month, a Florida man was arrested after allegedly attacking flight attendants and breaking a piece off a bathroom door during a United flight from Miami to the D.C. area. He told authorities he had consumed psilocybin mushrooms in the airport before boarding, according to federal court documents.
And in September, a Delta passenger was taken into custody for interfering with a flight crew after ignoring instructions and climbing over seats in the first-class cabin during a flight from Portland, Ore., to Atlanta. He was restrained and the flight diverted to Salt Lake City because of his behavior. The man told officers he had used meth in recent days and often had bad reactions to the drug, according to a federal complaint.
The U.S. Attorney General last year told federal prosecutors to give high priority to investigations into crimes committed on planes amid a record number of unruly-passenger incidents.
Jim Brauchle, an aviation attorney with the Motley Rice law firm, said travelers who are under the influence and cause a disturbance could face arrest at the airport for public intoxication; federal criminal charges for interfering with a flight crew; reimbursement costs if a plane has to make an unexpected diversion; and fines from the FAA.
“That’s a pretty expensive beer,” he said.
Even in states where a traveler can consume marijuana legally, he said, an airline can still prohibit them from boarding if they appear to be under the influence — just like someone could be denied the right to fly if they’ve consumed alcohol legally. Despite loosening local or state laws, travelers still can’t fly with marijuana because the substance is illegal under federal law and plane travel falls under federal jurisdiction.
Brauchle said that if a traveler has a few drinks before boarding and mixes in some sleeping pills, they could face a “dangerous combination” with the added effect of being at a higher altitude.
He said major airlines provide training for employees on identifying whether someone is actually drunk or high rather than experiencing a physical condition or disability that could be mistaken for being under the influence.
“I think that’s probably why if you’re not, what I would say, acting a fool as you’re trying to board the plane, there’s probably a good chance you’re going to get on board,” Brauchle said.
United’s contract specifies that passengers could be prohibited from boarding if they are intoxicated or under the influence of drugs — unless they are a “qualified individual whose appearance or involuntary behavior may make them appear to be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs.”
Morgan Durrant, a spokesman for Delta, said the airline has given great attention in the past several years to educate and train staff about conditions that can be seen or might be less obvious. He said passengers with conditions or disabilities are able to let the airline know in advance in case they need any accommodations or assistance during their travels.
The biggest concern, experts say, is safety.
“If the customer does not appear to be a danger to themselves or to anyone around them, chances are pretty good they’re not going to get stopped,” Durrant said.
Ultimately, he said, the goal is to avoid dangerous situations in the air.
“If there’s anything that looks like it can have the potential to grow into a contentious situation while the aircraft is at altitude, you always want to solve for that on the ground,” he said.