Airline Shakedown—Yearning for Crafts On Board

By Julia Herz

Ok, I know, I should just keep quiet and accept the ways of the larger airlines just as we consumers do about so many large companies. But, I’m sorry, I cannot. I’m a beer lover and I also travel on planes enough to sometimes really, really want a good beer to help the time tick away, while I’m trapped (by choice) in a large tube at 20,000 feet. And, I feel what I am saying has already been said and thought by thousands of beer lovers, so perhaps by bringing this up we can improve things.

Why do the larger airlines (and don’t get me started on cruise ships where selection should be focused on an enhanced experience), insist on only carrying mostly mass domestic beers, and yet some of them actually do focus on their wine offerings? Working in the industry at the national association for small brewers (Brewers Association), I already know most of my answer. It has to do with relationships, supply chain management, did I say relationships(?) plus an old way of thinking.

For an airline to have a nice and even mix of national, regional and local beer brands they would likely have to work with more than one distributor. Let’s face it, the little guys don’t often have representation that puts them in front of the buyers for say…United Airlines. That would be like bagging Wall Mart as a retail account.

Hemispheres MagazineBelow is a look at who is carrying what. I’d like to especially point out United since they are the largest, the leaders if you will and the inspiration for this blog. They offer the beer brands below and have gone as far as—and I commend them—commissioning Doug Frost to consult to them on their wine selections. They even promote Doug in their Hemisphere’s Magazine to share with their adult customers that they do care about their beverage experience…at least wine. I’ve seen Doug speak and have attended some of his tastings. He is incredibly skilled and a world class expert. But, United is missing the boat, considering how many more people enjoy beer over wine.

Beer Gallup Poll

Snapshot of Airline’s Beer Selections

(as of author research in September 2010)

Alaskan: Alaskan Amber, Budweiser, Miller Lite, Corona (Mexico flights only)

Continental: Corona, Heineken, Miller Lite

Delta: Corona, Heineken, Miller Lite

Frontier: Coors Original, Coors Banquet, New Castle, Miller Ginuine Draft, Miller Lite

Jet Blue: Blue Moon, Bud Light, Heineken, Heineken Light, Fosters, Presidente Beer

Southwest: Bud Light, Michelob Ultra, Miller Lite, Heineken, Corona

United: Miller Genuine Draft, Miller Lite, Heineken

Do you see a pattern here? Mostly all of the above are American style Lagers. Did you know the Brewers Association has an estimated 140 beer styles on the books? As American Lagers are losing share, full flavored craft beers (most on average of 5% alcohol by volume) are gaining favor. So, that’s all I’m saying. Airlines please show us you care by getting with the beer times, stepping out of stereotyping your passengers and start to offer a wider selection of beer—beer from local, regional and national craft brewers is the specific ask.

I go even further to ask, does the local brewery even have a shot at ever getting their beers to be served on your planes? Kudos to Alaskan Airlines for offering Alaskan Amber!

I should have recorded my amusing and yet frustrating phone call to United Airlines to try and get an answer from the source, but alas I was told by a customer service representative for airline reservations that they could not provide me the phone number to the corporate offices. They encouraged me to email them. So I sent the following, and I’ll be sure to post an update comment here if and when they actually reply:

Attn: Alexandria P. Marren, Senior Vice President – Onboard Service or most appropriate person.

My name is Julia Herz and I work for the Brewers Association in Boulder Colorado and am a writer for CraftBeer.com. I also am a personal member of United Airlines Mileage Plus program. I’d like to ask United to comment on the following question: Why does United Airlines have a wine expert consulting to the company on what wines you offer but no beer consultant? Beer sales in the U.S. surpass sales of both wine and spirits combined and as a frequent flyer of your airline I would very much welcome and appreciate an expanded beer service offering multiple beer styles beyond American Lager, and the choice of also ordering a U.S. craft beer. Cheers and I look forward to your response.

Anyone fly lately? Please do share below your observations on this topic. Also, consider emailing any of the above airlines if you are so inspired to also share your thoughts with them.

Cheers, and happy flying!

Julia Herz, Craft Beer Program Director for the Brewers Association, is a homebrewer, BJCP beer judge and Certified Cicerone®. Despite her extensive experience, she will always consider herself a beer beginner on an unending journey to learn more about craft beer.

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