Bars Onboard

See the new issue of Briefings magazine, available at newsstands and online.

The bar is hopping. There are start-up entrepreneurs chatting up white-shoe lawyers, and media moguls clinking glasses with captains of industry. As the bartender slides you a caviar canapé, an announcement sounds overhead: “Passengers, we are expecting turbulence, please take your seats.”

In a little-noted expansion of air-travel perks, a small but growing number of carriers have gone well beyond handing out peanuts to building onboard bars in some of their planes. The perk is only for first-class ticket holders and some business-class fliers, but it harkens to an old air travel era where the lounges were common. It also represents a revival in airline profits, as purchasing a plane fitted with a bar can cost hundreds of millions. Here, passengers can trade tips on Russian hockey while sipping a vodka martini on the way to Moscow, or clamor for sake bombs on their way to Tokyo. 

To date, it takes some hunting to find the planes with bars, which can be found on airlines ranging from Virgin Atlantic to Qatar Airways. The layouts vary greatly, too, from hard-backed booths to curved, rich leather sofas more reminiscent of a Moroccan tea lounge. 

In the grand days of Pan Am, the cabin bars—often on the upper deck of a 747—were a formal affair, a world of buttoned-up, all-male businessmen with the only women being the “stewardesses.” In this new iteration of onboard bars, the vibe is often more relaxed. Now travelers will find vacationing couples alongside those businessmen, alongside retirees and young jet-setters. Brazilian doctor Luiz Tizatto recently boarded Qatar Airways, intentionally routing his Maldives honeymoon through the Middle East so that he and his new spouse could enjoy an inflight bar. “It was amazing to see the variety of people,” he says. “Athletes, models, businessmen, all together at the same bar.” 

New York-based travel expert Gilbert Ott, who has been tracking such inflight watering holes, says he will go out of his way to find a route that operates with a bar, and that the activities vary with the route. Some airline bars he has experienced are packed with rowdy tourists who paid for a last-minute upgrade, where “it might as well have been the most raucous ballfield rather than a quiet airplane.” But he’s also seen the opposite, where business professionals used the extra space simply to stretch their legs or confer with colleagues in a more social and less disruptive environment than their seats.

Ott, who publishes flight reviews on his blog, “God Save the Points,” says that when it comes to bars onboard, “in the best of times, it’s a casual, quiet place where people act accordingly, much like a top-notch bar anywhere.” 

Download the PDF