a glass of wine on a table in an airplane

This may be a bit niche, but with a growing number of people learning more about wine, thanks to online Zoom tasting instruction and just sheer and total boredom at home, more people now appreciate “good” wine.

Surprisingly to some, even in most business class cabins, and even on top international airlines, the wine served is rarely “good” wine. Even in first class, it can be hit or miss. In any other cabin, it’s almost guaranteed to be straight up bad.

For context, see legendary wine critic Jancis Robinson skewer an airline she once ran the wine program for, when they were refusing to buy any bottles over €6 (cellar door price) for first class wine.

If that’s the price figure in first class, imagine what business, premium and economy get?! No one describes the phenomenon better than Jancis, but today I want to focus on how to change that.

Before I dive in, I just want to offer an honorable mention to Delta, Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Qatar Airways for being notable exceptions to wine woes. They each bring unique and great wines to the air.

a glass of wine on a tray in a plane

Upsell Opportunities Benefit Everyone

My proposal is a happy medium, at least in all classes except first. Emirates serves everything from Sassicaia to Dom Perignon P2 and Dominus up front, so even then most pretentious oenophile doesn’t need an upsell there.

But elsewhere, I’d love for airlines to create a new profit center — at a time they’re all complaining about money — by offering wine upsell opportunities in select cabins. It could be similar to the way a fine dining restaurant typically offers standard pairings, and elevated pairings.

Quickly — I love wine. It’s a passion and something I learn as much about as I possibly can. The more I know, the less I drink on planes. Rest is part of it, but it’s also because of uninspired choices I wouldn’t drink at home. So why would I in the air?

This upsell offering could either be done by browsing a selection of potential “up sell” bottles to enjoy on the plane ordered in advance, or just elevated pairings to go with the food, which can also be purchased before flight, or even during, with a tap. If your next thought is about overconsumption, half bottles could easily solve that.

From the get-go, the issue I immediately see is that sly airlines would use this as an opportunity to serve cheaper wine as a starting point, to force upsells. That’s not how this should work.

a man opening a bottle of wine

They should offer the same current quality at a very bare minimum, but offer upsells, perhaps featuring wines from first class, for a premium. Why not make more money?

In terms of unit economics, this would also help airlines buy better wines, because they’d be able to buy more of each wine, which would make it easier to reduce the cost per bottle. Costs aren’t just being absorbed in the price of a first class ticket, but being offered up for sale elsewhere.

Why Haven’t Airlines Done This?

Playing fantasy airline CEO is an easy game, but being an actual leader of an airline is often not. Unbeknownst to most passengers, and rarely acknowledged by any CEO’s, passengers aren’t even the primary concern of a leader. Share price, cargo, unions, all that stuff typically comes first.

The same unfortunately goes fo IT projects. Unless something can be easily justified immediately, as bringing huge new cost savings or creating massive revenue, it gets pushed to the bottom of a pile. It’s an excuse I get very tired of hearing, but a real one nonetheless.

There’s also the belief that the wine being served “isn’t bad”, as I would say it is. Many airlines would counter with some PR exercise about how their wine team selects from the very best and only the best blind bottles win.

Despite these attempts, we’re living in a time where it’s harder to mask things. Apps like Vivino provide incredible community based wine scores, in addition to scores from famous critics.

And anyone wine lover knows price is not always the issue, despite what airlines might claim. It’s about putting time and effort into choosing wines which are “drinking now”, and not just flashy names, which might need another decade to drink.

I believe there’s healthy room for disagreement on wine, and that some people are lunatics, but I find that wines with a 3.9 out of 5 or better are typically great, and wines with lower scores just aren’t. It’s a good ballpark scoring system, and if you parse your way through many an airline wine menu, you’ll rarely find wines swinging into the 4 out of 5 range!

Buying better wine that people are directly helping to pay for, rather than wine prices being lost in the imprecise sea of what you’re paying for with an airline ticket, could bring better wine to the skies. It should, in my opinion.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Problem is twofold: 1. Customers would be more unlikely to buy a full bottle in the sky with perhaps only a couple to drink from it. Otherwise you are looking at using Coravin which I am not sure the airlines would want to train employees to use this system and whether the cartridges present a safety issue. 2. Wine tastes different at high altitudes. It is a living breathing organism and all wine critics will tell you that after traveling let your wine rest for 2 weeks before drinking so traveling in the air is not going to make great wine good!

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