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Corkscrew meets metal detector

Times Staff Writer

MOST of us never have a chance for the Big Triumphs in life -- winning an Oscar, winning the Super Bowl, winning the lottery. So we settle for the small triumphs that our everyday lives occasionally offer. I had one such victory not long ago on a flight to London.

For years, as I wrote recently in this space, I’ve taken my own food and wine on any cross-country or transatlantic flight. I’ve tried to open my bottle discreetly and -- having asked for an empty glass during beverage service -- I’ve poured my wine into it and tucked the bottle in the pocket on the back of the seat in front of me between pours.

Although no one has ever objected to my food, flight attendants have, on a few occasions, told me that I wasn’t allowed to drink my own wine.

When that has happened, I’ve politely pointed out that I only have a half-bottle -- or, if I’m traveling with my wife, one full bottle for us to share -- and I’ve said, “I know you’d let me drink more than that if I bought booze from you, so apart from the profit you make selling your booze, what’s your objection?”

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Most have found that position reasonable, but when necessary, I’ve shown the flight attendant the slip of paper I always carry in my wallet -- a copy of Federal Air Regulation 121.575(a), which says, “No person may drink any alcoholic beverage aboard an aircraft unless the certificate holder operating the aircraft has served that beverage to him.”

I point out that this regulation says alcoholic beverages must be “served,” not “provided,” by the airline, and I say that if they want to “serve” my wine -- to open my bottle and pour the wine -- I’d be happy to let them do so.

“But I know you’re very busy, so I’m happy to do it myself,” I’ve always said, with a self-sacrificing smile.

Most reply, in effect, “Thank you, go right ahead.”

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Testing the rule

BuT a colleague who’s far more knowledgeable than I about the Federal Aviation Administration recently told me that in his opinion, Federal Air Regulation 121.575(a) is intended to prohibit passengers from drinking their own wine on board, for fear they’ll get drunk and abusive.

“If you try to do it,” he says, “you could be inviting arrest and a fine.”

Well, that’s pretty scary, so I called the FAA. Happily, a spokesman there confirmed my interpretation of “served.”

“Our rule does permit that you could bring a bottle of wine on board an aircraft and have the crew serve it to you,” she said. But individual airlines “can always be more stringent than FAA rules,” she said, “and I find it hard to believe that there would be very many that would permit it.”

OK. I called several airlines. What I found is that whether you will be allowed to drink your own wine probably depends on which airline you fly, who your flight attendant is and -- for all I know -- the color of your eyes.

What I found, in other words, is chaos.

When I called Delta Air Lines, I was told passengers can’t drink their own wine. But when I called JetBlue, I was told they can, “so long as you give your bottle to the flight attendant to open and pour and hold” between pours. Southwest agreed with Delta.

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But moments after that conversation, I received an e-mail from a reader who said she drank her own wine on Southwest and found the flight attendants “very accommodating.”

I called American Airlines. Nope, you can’t drink your own wine.

But when I called the airline’s corporate office and identified myself as a reporter, a spokesman told me the airline’s policy is that it’s OK to drink your own wine as long as you let the flight attendant open it and serve it.

So, what to do? Speaking for myself, I intend to keep doing exactly what I’ve been doing -- drinking my own wine unless ordered not to.

Hand over that corkscrew

There is, however, a new, post-Sept. 11 dilemma for airborne wine drinkers. And this brings me -- finally -- to my recent small triumph.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, I’ve had several corkscrews confiscated by security before boarding. On our last flight to London, I packed two cheap corkscrews -- one in my carry-on suitcase, one in my food bag -- hoping that at least one would escape discovery.

No such luck -- even though the Transportation Security Administration tells me that corkscrews are permitted on board.

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That left me with a bit of a problem. Eleven hours in the air with all the food I’d bought and nothing good to drink?

Impossible.

I took my half-bottle to the airport bar and asked the bartender to open it.

“I won’t drink it here,” I said. “It’s for the plane.”

To my surprise, he opened it without question, jammed the cork back in and handed it back to me.

Now I had a different problem. Even before Sept. 11, airport security told me I couldn’t bring an open bottle of wine aboard (though no one could ever explain to me why that was so).

Hmm. What to do about my protruding cork, now visibly devoid of its lead capsule covering?

I looked around the bar and the restaurant. Voila. Among the packets of ketchup, mustard, sugar and other condiments, I spotted several tiny plastic containers of cream. Each was about an inch or so tall and less than that in width.

I took one into the men’s room, opened it, emptied it in the sink and washed it out carefully. Then I inverted it over the protruding cork and pushed down.

Perfect. A homemade capsule. It fit snugly, and its color -- red -- even picked up a bit of the red in the label on my half-bottle of Chianti.

I marched through the final, pre-boarding security check, with the wine bottle in plain view in my food bag so no one could accuse me of trying to smuggle something aboard should my makeshift capsule not pass inspection.

The guard did notice the bottle. But all he said was, “Chianti, huh? Good vintage?”

“Pretty good,” I said. “It’s a ’95.”

He nodded in agreement and wished me a pleasant trip.

Pleasant it was.

And what I’ve learned since makes me even happier.

First, the TSA has posted on its Web site (www.tsatraveltips.us) a list of items prohibited and permitted on board. That list says corkscrews are permitted, so if you’re going to travel, I’d suggest you print out that list and carry it with you to show security and airline personnel, if necessary.

Also, Nico Melendez, Western regional spokesman for the TSA, says you can take an open bottle aboard if you re-cork it tightly so that “it can safely pass through the X-ray machine without spilling.”

So, much as I hate to boast, I’ve been right all along.

I can’t wait to get on the plane for my flight to New York tomorrow -- food, wine, corkscrew, FAA and TSA regulations in hand.

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com.


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