Was this elderly traveler trying to sneak four ounces of alcohol into Canada?

If you’re traveling to Canada, leave your alcohol on the plane. Don’t try to take it with you — at least, not if you’re flying Delta Air Lines. Otherwise, like Margaret Stephen, you may regret the experience.

Stephen, who is 72 years old, was escorted off her flight by Canadian customs agents and airport security personnel to ask if she’d returned her empty bottle to the flight attendant as instructed. When Stephen replied that she had, she was released with promises of an apology from Delta.

“I am still stunned by the hideous event and my perception was that they thought the whole thing was a waste of their time,” says Stephen. “There was an extreme amount of tension from the time they boarded the plane until they said I was free to go. Obviously, I was in a state of extreme stress but they were on edge too. I could feel it — scary!

We never advise engaging flight crew members in disputes. However unjustified their actions may seem, every airline’s flight crew members are empowered to remove passengers they deem a threat to the well-being of the crew and the other passengers. But we can’t help wondering if the crew overreacted in Stephen’s case — and if Delta’s personnel are giving out false information to their passengers about whether taking bottles of alcohol off airplanes is legal.

On Stephen’s flight to Canada, she was seated in Comfort Class and ordered what she describes as “a very small bottle of Prosecco.”

A flight attendant asked Stephen for the bottle while collecting trash. Stephen told her that she wanted to keep the bottle. Unfortunately, the flight attendant replied that it was illegal to bring alcohol into Canada and that Stephen would have to give back the bottle before deplaning.

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According to the flight attendant, both Canadian customs and Delta require air passengers to return bottles of alcohol to flight crews. She showed Stephen a highlighted copy of Delta’s alcohol policy. Although Stephen then requested a copy of the policy for herself, the flight attendant did not give her one. Stephen surrendered the bottle of Prosecco to the flight attendant.

But when the plane landed, five uniformed persons boarded the aircraft and escorted Stephen off the plane. Two were Canadian customs agents; the other three appeared to be security personnel. One of the agents, a large man, asked Stephen if she had returned her bottle of alcohol to the flight attendant. On hearing Stephen answer “yes,” he left the area. Another customs agent then told Stephen that she was free to go. She promised Stephens that Delta would offer her an apology, but it would come later as “they have already closed the cabin door.”

Stephens never received the promised apology from Delta. Although she might have complained to higher-ranking executives of the airline using the contact information on our website, she asked our advocates to help her get that apology.

Unfortunately for Stephen, Delta’s Canadian General Rules Tariff indicates that

Delta may refuse to transport any passenger, and may remove any passenger from its aircraft at any time, for any of the following reasons: …

Failure To Comply With Delta’s Rules Or Contract Of Carriage
When a passenger fails or refuses to comply with any of Delta’s rules or regulations or any term of the contract of carriage.

Passenger’s Conduct Or Condition
… By way of example, and without limitation, Delta may refuse to transport or remove passengers from its aircraft in any of the following situations:

  • When the passenger appears to be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, …
  • When the passenger’s behavior may be hazardous to himself/herself, the crew or other passengers,
  • When the passenger’s conduct creates an unreasonable risk of offense or annoyance to other passengers.
  • When the passenger’s conduct creates a risk of harm or damage to the carrier’s aircraft or other property, or the property of other passengers.

So a passenger who is suspected of being drunk or who doesn’t comply with a crew member’s instructions, whatever their nature, risks ejection from the flight or other negative treatment by the airline — even if it doesn’t seem justified from that passenger’s perspective. And the lack of more specific language in the Tariff allows flight crews a lot of latitude in determining that a passenger is in violation of Delta’s rules and regulations.

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The flight attendant felt that Stephen’s initial failure to comply with her request that she hand over the bottle of Prosecco posed a threat or otherwise violated Delta’s rules or regulations. Unfortunately, as humiliating as Stephen’s experience was, she won’t prevail in a complaint against Delta for having customs agents remove her from the plane.

Yet we have to wonder if Delta’s flight crew went too far in Stephen’s case.

The Canada Border Services Agency’s website suggests that travelers are allowed to bring alcoholic beverages into the country duty-free and tax-free, subject to limitations on quantities, which is set at the federal level, and the age of the persons bringing it, which is set at the provincial level, based on the province where the travelers are entering Canada. Nothing in the regulations listed on this website suggest that Stephen’s actions violated any Canadian limits for bringing alcohol into the country.

In addition, Delta appears to be inconsistent about enforcing any policies it maintains about taking alcohol off its flights. Stephen claims that, in the past, she’s been permitted to take bottles of alcoholic beverages with her while deplaning.

Unfortunately for Stephen, we don’t see how a customs agent could make a promise of an apology from Delta that actually obligates the airline to offer her one. Our advocate told Stephen that although she can write to Delta’s executives to request an apology, she doesn’t have a case we can advocate because she has no damages. So Stephen may never receive that apology.

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

  • Annie M

    Why do people have to make such a big deal out of something like this? If it were me- I would have just walked away. My ego is not that big that I need a huge apology- I would have reported the attendants name to the Executives via email and asked to have the flight attendant instructed on proper rules.

    If you have your health, nothing in the scheme of life requires things to be blown out of proportion or is so terrible. There are people who are truly wronged that need help. This was a waste of time for the advocates here.

    And I would have simply handed over the bottle in the first place. I don’t need a souvenir – if she wanted to remember what brand of Prosecco she drank if she liked it- take a picture.

  • Patrica

    I have found Delta Customer Service to do MORE than was necessary, even when I just made an inquiry not a demand. I wish I had been there to see this “conflict”. We can get those little bottles for $1 to $2 at the grocery store!! Makes me wonder if there were OTHER pre-disposing issues before/after this trifling scuffle? FA says return bottle, she says no, then returns bottle. Case closed so I would think.

  • Extramail

    When is civility going to return to not only airline travel but life in general? Why does every mile hill have to become a mountain? One small bottle of alcohol? And, yes, maybe the passenger should have given up the bottle but to escalate it to escorting her off the plane? Ridiculous!

  • MarkKelling

    All this over an EMPTY bottle? Since when is it illegal to carry an empty bottle with you?

    If the passenger had wanted to take the full bottle with them, that might be another issue especially since your are not supposed to be served alcohol unless the container has been opened by the FA. But even then as long as the bottle is declared when going through customs when required what is the real issue? The quoted Delta rules have nothing to do with taking bottles of alcohol off (on onto) a plane only about refusing to follow flight crew orders. I think this is what it comes down to — a FA asked the passenger to do something and the passenger (initially) said no so the FA used their power to inconvenience a whole lot of people.

  • Alan Gore

    Wat exactly did the Delta crew tell Canadian Customs on landing? Is there any way we can find out?

  • The issue is abuse of authority. Calling customs over something so trivial?


    I cannot help but wonder if there is more to the story than told by the OP. It seems just too weird for something else not to be involved.

  • disqus_wK5MCy17IP

    It seems like the FA wasn’t aware that the bottle was empty. If a pax says they want to keep the bottle, wouldn’t the likely scenario be that there’s something left in it?

  • disqus_wK5MCy17IP

    One thought I had was that the bottle was given to an FA other than the one who showed her the policy. Asking for a copy of the policy, especially if it’s more like a demand could seem pretty defiant. If the bottle was then tossed in a trash bag manned by another FA you could have the first FA thinking there’s a surly pax ready to sneak alcohol off the plane.

    Or a lot of time may have transpired and the call to customs had been placed before the bottle was surrendered.

  • Bill___A

    There is something that doesn’t sound right about this story. It isn’t illegal to bring alcohol into Canada. It is a requirement to declare that you have alcohol – but that does not happen until after you get off the plane and go to the customs declaration point. Being taken off the plane for taking alcohol into the country is akin to being arrested for shoplifting before you leave the store.

    “Unfortunately, the flight attendant replied that it was ILLEGAL TO BRING ALCOHOL INTO CANADA and that Stephen would have to give back the bottle before deplaning.” – utter and complete lie about illegal to bring it into Canada.

    So any talk about being arrested for bringing alcohol into Canada in this manner is, in my opinion, utter nonsense. If that were to happen, it happens after you leave the plane, and they most certainly do not haul you off the plane for it. If they suspect you of smuggling, then once you reach the customs/immigration officer, they will direct you to a secondary area, and if they search, they will often do it in this secondary area.

    What is more likely is that she caused a problem with the Delta flight crew and they called for assistance in removing her from the plane.

    It would be much better to clarify things a little more before publishing as this article could cause some misconceptions.

    Some old people, for some reason or another, think that laws don’t apply to them once they get up there, and they do what they want (my mother is like this, particularly when flying).

    For any of you reading, you can bring alcohol into Canada. There is a requirement that you be of legal drinking age in the province/territory in which you arrive. There is a “duty free” limit, which is the amount you can bring in without paying duty. Anything over that, you simply declare it and they collect duty on it. There is a point where it becomes a requirement to get a liquor permit if you have a lot, but that’s provincially regulated. There’s more information on the internet.

  • Bill___A

    Actually, I think that they should be very strict with these people who don’t think they have to listen to the flight crew. If you are told to give the bottle back, you give the bottle back. What it does is send a message. It isn’t that difficult to behave on a plane, more people should do it.

  • Bill___A

    Probably they told them that the passenger was not listening to crew instructions and being combative.

  • C Schwartz

    This is an odd story. I wonder if the question of returning the bottle has to do with wine doggybag rules? As in taking away a half finished bottle of wine? I know the rules are pretty restrictive where I live — bottle has to be put in a special bag, things like that.

    So the bottle was empty? The passenger wanted to carry around an empty bottle of an average prosecco into Canada?

    I am not sure what to think of this story. I do think some information is unclear. The passenger mentions taking bottles off of flights before — were all these empty?

  • MarkKelling

    “Canadian customs agents and airport security personnel to ask if she’d returned her empty bottle to the flight attendant as instructed.”

    Since the bottle for any alcohol given to a passenger on a plane is supposed to be opened by the FA before serving, I doubt it would be practical to take one with you that was not empty.

    It seems that only Delta has an issue with passengers keeping empty alcohol bottles. In my younger days, I often kept the small bottle my drink came in if it was a different or interesting design and never been questioned about it by any airline going anywhere in the world. But then I have never flown Delta.

  • cscasi

    She did give the bottle back.
    “According to the flight attendant, both Canadian customs and Delta require air passengers to return bottles of alcohol to flight crews. She showed Stephen a highlighted copy of Delta’s alcohol policy. Although Stephen then requested a copy of the policy for herself, the flight attendant did not give her one. Stephen surrendered the bottle of Prosecco to the flight attendant.”
    What does the last sentence above indicate?

  • cscasi

    However, she did comply with the flight attendant’s request after the flight attendant showed her where it is in its rules.
    “According to the flight attendant, both Canadian customs and Delta require air passengers to return bottles of alcohol to flight crews. She showed Stephen a highlighted copy of Delta’s alcohol policy. Although Stephen then requested a copy of the policy for herself, the flight attendant did not give her one. Stephen surrendered the bottle of Prosecco to the flight attendant.”
    To call customs and border protection upon landing was over the top because the passenger did compll after being shown the rule in writing.

  • disqus_wK5MCy17IP

    The pax reported that she was questioned about an empty bottle, not that customs was aware that the bottle was empty or used the term empty bottle.

    I’m not sure what the stance is on bringing an open bottle into Canada. I know the bottle needs to be new and sealed in some other countries.

  • C Schwartz

    I wonder if this is the reason that Delta is so strict about bottle count on an airline — this may explain their internal policy which has little to do with Canadian customs ………

    “A Delta Airlines flight attendant is accused of taking a drink for the road —and then taking more than 1,000 more..

    Though her alleged actions may have been more appropriate for Spirit
    Airlines, prosecutors said Rachel Trevor was working for the Delta-owned
    Endeavor Air when she stole nearly 1,500 mini-bottles of liquor.

    The 28-year-old Memphis woman was arrested after whisking the whiskey,
    gin, rum, and vodka into her bag and using Craigslist to sell them,
    according to the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office.”


  • C Schwartz

    Your post reminded me of a news story which I posted above — about a FA stealing bottles of alcohol and selling them online — the FA was on a Delta owned subsidiary. That may be the reason that Delta is so strict and they do counts of opened and unopened, so as to see if anything has disappeared — which has little to do with customs.

  • Bill___A

    There are a lot of things I don’t believe about this story. The airline may well have a policy but I have a very difficult time believing this story as presented and it is a waste of time to discuss the various points as they are dubious at best. The headline is misleading as it alludes to it being illegal to bring alcohol into the country, which clearly it is not. Whenever you have a quote that “the flight attendant replied that it is illegal to bring alcohol into Canada” it brings the whole credibility of the story into question. I do believe that there are rules that alcohol consumed aboard the aircraft must be obtained by the airline, you can’t bring your own. And I also would believe that airline supplied alcohol must be consumed aboard the aircraft, unless it is bought on the airline’s duty free, which I understand no US airlines do anymore. Most of the stories on this site are pretty good, but this one is really questionable.

  • Asiansm Dan

    It’s a bogguss story from Delta, I used to bring 4 bottles, whatever from USA, Asia, Cuba or Europe. 2 bottles are free of duty but most of the time the custom agent don’t care even I had 4 bottles.
    Canadian custom agents certainly don’t make a fuss for 4 ounces. Delta must told some lies to the Canadian Custom Agents

  • Bill___A

    Canada, to my knowledge, doesn’t have any rules about brown bagging like those so called “dry” states in the USA. Something is amiss with this article, it isn’t right. I understand that she upset Delta somehow and she shouldn’t have. Nothing to do with customs I don’t think.

  • Bill___A

    People who “ask to be shown the rules” before they will do something are not cooperating. She should carry her own copy of the official rules if she wants proof. The onus is not upon the FA to carry around the rules. I hope she is put on the Delta no fly list.

  • C Schwartz

    I am wondering now if the issue has less to do with customs and more to do with Delta internal policy for inventory management so as to prevent employee theft — missing bottles being being looked as an indicator of employee theft — as in FA taking home bottles. So if the flight started with 100 full bottles, and lands with 50 full bottles and 50 empty bottles, that would be an indication that no bottles went home with employees. Just a guess ….

  • C Schwartz

    Yes, once showed a copy of Delta’s policy she asked for a copy; I am not sure that there are spare copies just laying around; I have to wonder why she was not satisfied with just being shown the rules.

  • MarkKelling

    That probably is it exactly. I am aware that different airlines have different rules about alcohol for passengers. FAs stealing would be a good reason to have all bottles accounted for, empty or full, when they lock up the alcohol cart for landing. It was something I had not considered. I have seen 1st class FAs take half empty bottles of wine off the plane on domestic flights on other airlines.

  • MarkKelling

    Then it wouldn’t be a customs issue. It would be a Border Protection (CBSA) issue in Canada. Customs just cares about what you have in your suitcases and carry ons or what you might be hiding on yourself that could be dangerous to Canada. CBSA decides if you are an undesirable, refuses you entry, and puts you back on the plane to where you came from. The group that escorted the OP off the plane was probably a mix of both (the security guards referred to in the article were most likely Border Protection).

  • MarkKelling

    I think what was not explained to the passenger is that Delta forbids passengers from taking any bottles, full or empty, off of any of their planes that were part of the plane’s inventory (i.e. sold or provided to the passenger by Delta on the plane). So not “illegal” just “against Delta’s policies” would have been a better way to explain it.

  • MarkKelling

    Canadian Customs couldn’t care less about what you take off of the plane as long as you declare it if it needs to be declared.

    This is simply and only Delta’s policy that they do no allow passengers to remove any alcohol bottles, empty or full, from the plane due to internal inventory controls.

  • MarkKelling

    Probably because the rules as shown are not clear and can be very difficult to understand. She may have wanted to discuss this with someone after the flight.

    Nowhere on the Delta web site is there any rule or policy noted about not taking empty bottles with you from the drinks you had on the plane.

  • Annie M

    I understand that. If it were me, I still would have just let it go once they let me go. I would have simply taken the FAs name and brought it to the attention of her bosses.

    Everything in life is not a major case that needs someone else to fight your battles. It’s more important to make sure the FA is taught the right rules then making a big deal out of getting an apology. In the scheme of bad things that happen to people- this just isn’t one of them. All
    over a $2 empty bottle.

    People have cancer, lose a loved one, have their homes burned to the ground – THAT is a tragedy- not this.

  • Annie M

    It shows she was defiant- instead of giving up the bottle she had to be shown the policy and then asked for a copy of it. That’s not simply going along – she was defiant in her own little way.

  • disqus_wK5MCy17IP

    “Customs” may have just been her interpretation. It’s possible they were border protection agents and her interpretation of the situation was that it involved customs.

  • AMA

    Since when is 72 “elderly”?

  • Chris_In_NC

    This makes NO sense. There is no law prohibiting importation of alcohol into the US or Canada. If you take the alcohol from the plane, you just need to DECLARE it to customs and pay the appropriate duty if applicable.

  • Noah Kimmel

    those prosecco bottles are 187 mL, so one full cup. DL is only carrier who offers sparkling wine on domestic / canada / mexico flights. And free in Comfort+ / First.

    Not sure why customs needed to be called, seems a bit ridiculous, but so does arguing about giving back an empty bottle…

  • Bill___A

    As I said, most of this story is filled with statements that are not believable.

  • Bill___A

    Generally the police come on the plane if there is a person of interest, along with the customs/immigration people and no one else is allowed to leave the plane until they have dealt with/taken the offender off.

  • Bill___A

    It is elderly. Until I get to be 72, then it isn’t.

  • Bill___A

    Might be.

  • LonnieC

    Absolutely beyond ridiculous. The OP asked if she could keep the EMPTY bottle. When told no, she surrendered it. Under what theory does that “threaten” anything??? The flight attendant was obviously having a bad day, and took it out on the OP. Apology? Hell, yes. She’s owed a lot more than that, for the embarrassment. Little people with big power. Save us all.

  • Lee4You

    I just can’t help but think there is more to the incident than was explained by the OP and if not, it was a rather extreme response but we don’t know to what extent flight attendants, etc have been informed (in no uncertain terms) that every such situation must be handled according to their policies – or else. Would a flight attendant risk losing her/his job if they didn’t follow protocol? Who knows.

    It actually got to a point where the flight attendant had to show the passenger a highlighted copy of the policy and then the passenger wanted a copy for herself? Why? Did she request the copy just to be contrary – why wasn’t seeing the copy shown to her enough?

    I just think there’s more to this – and by that, I mean attitude and response of the passenger about such a trivial matter that would cause such a response from the FA.

  • Skeptic

    Prosecco is a sparkling wine that goes flat when you open it, and the kind of cap that comes with these single serve bottles does not keep the bottles’ contents pressurized once they are opened. Even if the passenger did not consume all four ounces, I sincerely doubt there was anything drinkable left in the bottle. I view this as another example of FA powers going to their head, obstructing common sense.

  • Skeptic

    I’ve never had my bottle of liquor or wine opened by an FA, which can be a problem. Seat neighbors have sometimes had to do this for me! And it seems particularly unlikely that a FA would open a bottle of prosecco before giving it to the passenger.

  • Skeptic

    No, Alaska Airlines also serves Prosecco on domestic flights. Free to MVP Golds and Premium class and better.

  • Skeptic

    “People who “ask to be shown the rules” before they will do something are not cooperating.” I vehemently disagree with this. And I don’t want to live in a society that gives so much power to rule enforcers, no matter how poorly trained they are (or temperamentally unsuitable to sensible, even-handed enforcement), that if I seek clarification of the rules, I am characterized as uncooperative. In short, I don’t like fascism.

  • justanotherguy

    Why do you assume she is lying about the FA’s statement? Haven’t we seen again and again that most of these incidents are runaway FAs with too much power and too little respect for their passengers? Isn’t it more likely the FA was lying to her simply bc they could, and bc at that point it’s a power game for the FA?

  • Richard Mengelkoch

    Do you really expect passengers to carry copies of all official rules with them on a flight? That might require an additonal carry-on. You are really hard nosed by saying you hope thaat a 72 year old woman shouldbe placed on a “no fly” list

  • MarkKelling

    United serves prosecco on domestic flights too. For sale in coach, included in 1st.

  • Travelnut

    Likewise. I was trying to remember if the bottle was ever opened for me but I don’t think so. I have trouble unscrewing them myself.

  • NorthtoSouth

    I love those little bottles. I crochet a cover over then and then put four pom poms on the front one on top embroidereded eyes a nose and snout and you have a cute mini poodle.

  • NorthtoSouth

    I wonder if there were two flight attendants and one told the other one, but when the bottle was returned the second one didn’t tell the first one the bottle was returned. So the first one reported the lady. Just a thought.

  • jsn55

    I think there are a few things missing … the conversation between the OP and the FA for instance: the words, the tone, the volume. Obviously an FA isn’t going to call the authorities because a passenger wants to know the reason for the FA’s request for the empty bottle. So why did the FA contact the authorities?

  • jsn55

    EXACTLY, all those bottles are counted and used for inventory control. BTW, one of the things accomplished is to catch cabin crew making off with the airline’s booze.

  • Lindabator

    no, but once shown, why need a separate print out for herself – sounds like she was defensive, and they may have been presented with more of an attitude than she admits to, so they just had Canadian customs deal with her

  • Lindabator

    NO – those are not duty free items, so yes, they expect to collect them all

  • joycexyz

    Ridiculous behavior on the part of the FA. She felt “threatened”??? Apparently all it takes for her to feel threatened is someone replying to her. Sounds rather Gestapo-ish. Definitely should be reported.

  • Lindabator

    correct – cannot take the alcohol off, as it is NOT duty free

  • Lindabator

    it is only legal to take duty free – or properly purchased and declared – NOT the plane’s free booze – thy are responsible for those

  • Lindabator

    no – the pax was combatitive and did not wish to follow crew instructions – based on her wanting her OWN copy of the rules, even AFTER being shown, I would guess she wasn’t pleasant at all

  • joycexyz

    I didn’t get that she was combative, perhaps a little unrealistic (or silly) in asking for a copy of the rules. And she did surrender the bottle. I feel the FA overreacted after her authority was questioned.

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