Why Do People Drink So Early in Airports?

JFK Terminal 8—It is 9:22 a.m., and I am learning about consumer protections from a food-safety inspector who is on her second Bloody Mary. There is nothing quite like alcohol to facilitate an expansive conversation: I should encourage young people, she tells me, to consider careers in food safety. She’s on her way back from a work trip, and I learn that she always drinks Bloody Marys when she travels, which is often, but never drinks them at home. We move on to other topics: reincarnation, ExxonMobil, karma, the state of labor unions. The only thing that seemed to be off limits was her full name (her job, she said, prevents her from speaking with the media).

We’re sitting in the New York Sports Bar across from Gate 10, which is next to Solstice Sunglasses and a vending machine selling ready-to-eat salads in plastic mason jars. In the corner, two blond women drink white wine. A passing traveler pops her head in: Does the bar serve French fries? The bartender says no, they don’t start serving French fries until 10:30. It is too early for French fries. But it is not too early for white wine.

By the time security spit me out into JFK Terminal 8 at 7:02 a.m., the bars were already slinging drinks. At least four bars had patrons, including O’Neal’s Restaurant (a “cozy wood-paneled pub,” according to the JFK directory) and Bobby Van’s Grill (“elegant ambiance and upscale menu”). At JFK, alcohol service can begin at 6 a.m., the same time bars open at LAX. That’s hardly early for major airports. At MSP, outside Minneapolis, opening time was once also 6 a.m. but is now 4 a.m.; at Tokyo Narita Airport and London’s Heathrow, there are no restrictions. Early-morning drinking at airports is not just accepted but pervasive, Kenneth Sher, a University of Missouri expert on alcohol habits, told me. The internet has noticed, too. “What’s with all these people drinking pints in the airport at 6am?” wondered a Redditor in one of the many threads devoted to the topic.

Outside the airport, this is not how drinking works—or at least, not how it works in public. Morning drinking, with few exceptions (brunch, tailgating), tends to be “a sign of pretty severe alcohol dependence,” Sher said. Legally, it is discouraged: Non-airport bars in New York State are not allowed to start serving alcohol until 8 a.m. (10 a.m. on Sundays), and most hold out until at least the early afternoon, if not happy hour, Andrew Rigie of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, told me. But in the airport, the normal rules of drinking do not apply. “I’m not judging,” the bartender at Bobby Van’s Grill said, pouring vodka into a flute of orange juice. “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.”

I’d woken up at 4 a.m. to get to the airport, and by the time I met the food inspector, five hours later, I would have believed it was any time you told me. I was hopped up on adrenaline—feeling glamorous and vaguely ill—even though I had accomplished nothing. Mostly, travel is standing in different types of lines. I waited for people to look at my ticket. I waited for different people to inspect my shoes. None of this especially made me want alcohol, even though the idea of drinking at the airport felt romantic, in a novelistic sort of way.

At Bobby Van’s, perhaps the most dignified dining option in Terminal 8, I ate lukewarm potatoes next to a sad-eyed man drinking coffee and red wine. Mostly, the terminal was quiet. How Do I Live played, which seemed like a reasonable question. I watched a man in a zip-up cardigan eat eggs.

What are any of us doing here, sipping early-morning drinks at the airport Bobby Van’s? I am here because I am trying to answer that question. Other people have other reasons. You can, by observation and experience, put together a basic taxonomy of airport-drinking types. There is the solo business traveler with time to kill and no particular interest in working. There is the festive couple for whom airport drinks signal the beginning of vacation, and their corollary, the festive group of friends. And then there is the anxious traveler, motivated less by excitement than by ambient terror of being in a pressurized metal tube at 36,000 feet.

For a place where everyone is watching clocks, there is no real sense of time at an airport. “If you look out, all you see is the tarmac, a few airplanes,” says Michael Sayette, an alcohol researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. There are very few cues that you shouldn’t drink, and maybe it is actually happy hour for you. “You’ve got people coming in from all over the world who are on different times,” he points out. “It really is 5 p.m. where they woke up.” The airport perhaps is best understood as what French anthropologist Marc Augé has called a “non-place:” a blip in space and time. “A person entering the space of non-place is relieved of his usual determinants,” he wrote in his book on the subject. “He becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger.” It is perversely freeing, if lightly dehumanizing, to be alone in the airport.

Once you pass security—the transition, in the language of the business, between “landside” and “airside”—you assume another version of yourself. Landside, you are still anchored in your normal life, which is to say that you can come and go and hang out with your family and carry as many ounces of water as you want. Airside, you have assumed a new identity. You have become a traveler. You have no legible context and no obvious history. Are you a person who orders cocktails on a weekday morning? Who’s to say? You belong to the airport now.

So does everybody else there. There is a sense of solidarity: As fellow travelers, we are all indefinitely trapped in the same timeless, placeless boat. Why not drink? “It’s exciting for people to take an activity that is normally very, very regulated, time-wise, and then be embedded in a space where everything’s okay,” Edward Slingerland, the author of Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, told me. Alcohol signals the transition from one set of rules to another. “We use this, on a small scale, at the end of the workday, to transition to leisure time at home,” he suggests. “Drinking in airports is just kind of a bigger version of that. It’s a way of transitioning from our normal everyday lives to whatever unusual thing we’re off to.”

From the bartender at New York Sports Bar, I learn that women drink white wine and men order whiskey. I learn that back in Terminal 4, where she worked until recently, she’d go through five or six bottles of prosecco every morning shift. Luckily, for the travelers, JFK has no shortage of drinking opportunities, also including but not limited to Tigín Irish Pub, Soy & Sake Asian Eats, Blue Point Brewery, and Buffalo Wild Wings. And that’s not counting the multitude of private lounges, where elite passengers (or those with certain credit cards) are treated to an oasis of snacks and free-flowing booze. The American Express Centurion Lounge in Terminal 4, in fact, has three distinct bars, including a Prohibition-inspired speakeasy with drinks curated by a James Beard Award–winning mixologist.

None of this is an accident. The modern airport produces a captive, thirsty audience. Airports were once permeable by design, says Janet Bednarek, a historian of airports at the University of Dayton. Bars and shops and restaurants were open to everyone, and “airports depended upon non-travelers to spend money,” she told me. Then 9/11 happened, airports locked down, security tightened, and once you were airside, you’d passed a point of no return. For airports, Bednarek said, that proved to be a business opportunity rather than a problem: People were now getting to the airport hours early, and they had to do something to pass the time, whether it was shopping or eating or lounging at the bar. “Airports are looking for any way they can to generate revenue,” Henry Harteveldt, a travel-industry analyst, told me. Airports charge airlines huge fees, and still, pre-pandemic, retail concessions accounted for approximately 30 percent of airports’ total revenue, according to data from the Airports Council International.

Here is the thing about the airport, though: Nobody has control. You cannot control the people sitting next to you, or their children, or the security line, or the prepackaged sandwich options at CIBO Express. And most of all, you cannot control when the plane comes, or whether it comes, or how long it is delayed. More than 20 percent of arrival flights in the U.S. in the first three months of this year were delayed, more than the same stretch in any year since 2014. And that’s not even considering the epic meltdowns that can leave travelers stranded for days. “In a way, alcohol may be crucial for air travel, because it allows you to relax into passive helplessness,” said Slingerland, who was in an airport when we spoke. “I’ve been on, like, 10 flights in the last week and a half, and every single one of them was delayed.” Alcohol, he explains, turns down your brain’s ability to focus, suppress distractions, delay gratification, and do all the things you need to do to succeed in your daily life as a functional adult. But you are not a functional adult in the airport. You are a giant suitcase-wielding baby.

There is, perhaps, a darker read. “I think 80 percent of what you’re seeing is people who, in their normal lives, would never drink in the morning,” Slingerland said. But that leaves a good number of people whose regular behavior is presumably on display at 7 a.m. No one at JFK seemed all that bothered by the white wine and whiskey passengers were sipping so early in the day, but it’s hard to not see it as yet another sign of what everyone keeps saying: Americans drink too much.

“Drinking is acceptable in all sorts of other places it didn’t used to be,” wrote The Atlantic’s Kate Julian in 2021. “Salons and boutiques dole out cheap cava in plastic cups. Movie theaters serve alcohol, Starbucks serves alcohol, zoos serve alcohol.” A study published last year traced one in five deaths of people ages 20 and 49 to booze. Another paper found that one in eight American adults drank in a way that met the criteria for alcohol use disorder, a figure that seems to have worsened during the pandemic. And drunken passengers cause problems. Although all-hours drinking is useful for airports, airlines have been less thrilled. “It’s completely unfair,” a Ryanair executive said in a statement arguing for stricter policies in 2017, “that airports can profit from the unlimited sale of alcohol to passengers and leave the airlines to deal with the safety consequences.”

Alcohol in the airport, I had thought, isn’t like alcohol in the world outside. But perhaps airport drinking isn’t different at all. It still facilitates transition from one state to another—only literally. It still provides the illusion of easing the low-grade misery of life. And it still fosters camaraderie. I thought about the food-safety inspector, whom I’d talked with for most of an hour and surely will never see again. Our conversation had been lovely, I thought. Why don’t I talk to people more? This is the weird duality of alcohol: It can simultaneously blunt and enhance the world. In the airport, you desperately need both.