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I am conducting research and have been looking at the Chicago and Tokyo conventions with respect to which convention governs the sale of goods and services to passengers when in international flight. Specifically I am interested in what determines which countries rules regulate the provision of alcohol or internet services inflight, which would determine the suitability of sale of the service / the permissible age of purchasers, and the ability for the airline to provide the service throughout the duration of an international flight as the plane moves through different national airspaces and therefore differing national rules for those services/products.

I am not sure which is the governing convention, is it the Tokyo Convention and as such the regulation of the country of plane registration (flag), or is it the Chicago convention and as such the country of overflight unless in international airspace when the Tokyo convention applies, or a completely different regulation? I have also seen reports that the governing rules could be those of the country of takeoff or landing. There seems to be confusion in the market on this, with airlines believing they are able to make their own rules, with most following their flag countries rules, but not all. In relation to alcohol and the age of consumption, the practice from airlines seems to be that the Tokyo Convention applies with the age of consumption reflecting the law in the country of plane registration.

I suspect that the Tokyo convention applies with respect to these services and products once the plane is in the air as otherwise, airlines would not be able to provide a consistent continual service, is that correct?

  • The Chicago convention mostly only deals with the movement of the aircraft themselves. What happens onboard the aircraft is dealt with by the Tokyo Convention. – jcaron Oct 2 at 8:34
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For most practical purposes, an international flight will, when in flight, be considered in the jurisdiction of the state where the aircraft is registered. That is set by the Tokyo Convention you are referring to in Article 3, paragraph 1:

The State of registration of the aircraft is competent to exercise jurisdiction over offences and acts commited on board.

This not only applies to the passengers, but also to the crew. Therefore, the crew must also follow the laws of the state of registration, also laws on serving alcohol or making alcohol available to minors. There may of course be exceptions from this general rule, as a simple example, national laws may explicitely define different drinking ages for flights and on-land serving and airlines may of course also operate with higher drinking ages than required by law if they wish to do so.

  • Interesting exception: "the offence has been committed by or against a national or permanent resident of such State". Not quite sure this one is actually used practice, though. – jcaron Oct 2 at 8:26
  • Also this is a very badly written convention with lots of repetition, and even inconsistencies (going through it very very quickly), as in some cases it applies from start of take-off to end of landing run, and in other cases from doors closing to doors opening... – jcaron Oct 2 at 8:36
  • @jcaron I didn't write the text of the convention, but the essence regarding the question asked here, is that at least during flight, the laws of the state of registration apply. If the convention is so badly written, that it is possible to discuss or argue about which drinking age applies between closing of the doors and start of take-off, it is of very little practical significance. – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Oct 2 at 11:37
  • Thanks for the feedback. I believe the change between in-flight and doors shutting is because the latter specifically only related to the ability of the Pilot to have the right to exercise control over passengers, which is necessary once the doors are irrespective irrespective of if the engines are powered up or not, it does not change the timing of the taking over of flag jurisdiction which is when the engines are powered up / the landing run-out is complete. – Mike Tocknell Oct 3 at 9:53
  • I am concerned to understand the two exceptions, it sounds like jurisdiction of the flag nation in flight can be impacted under Tokyo article 4 ‘the offence has an effect on the territory of such a state’ and ‘the offence has been committed by or against a national of such state’, with state in this context being other than the flag state. Does anyone know what 'effect on the territory of a state means'? If the law in a state was different to the law of the flag state which would apply? – Mike Tocknell Oct 3 at 9:55
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There are no specific rules as to what the minimum drinking age is (no official law), individual airlines can choose their own rule, usually the age that applies to the country where the airline is registered. So to find the drinking age you will need to check with that specific airline.

For example, from this HuffPost article:

If you are flying American Airlines, the legal drinking on board a plane age is 21. This rule still applies even if the destination is a country where the legal drinking age is lower. If you're headed to Mexico where the legal drinking age is 18, the legal drinking age on the plane will still be 21.

Also see this BBC article.

Some airlines hold permits to reduce the drinking age on their flights. For example, onboard Emirates Airlines, the legal drinking age is 18 as they hold a license issued by the Government based in Abu Dhabi where the drinking age is 18. In Dubai, the legal drinking age is 21.

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