Members of the Fuller family from southern Minnesota thought their much-anticipated vacation to Mexico had finally begun when they stepped up to the bar at 5:53 a.m. Friday and ordered a round of cocktails at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

But an obscure Minnesota law got in the way of their hard-earned revelry. Air travelers who want a mixed drink, a beer or a glass of wine at the airport have to wait until 6 a.m., a legal quirk the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) wants to change this legislative session.

Later, nursing a bright-yellow screwdriver at Cocina del Barrio in Terminal 2 (Humphrey), Rochester resident Samantha Fuller was still baffled by the restriction. The lull before takeoff, after the frenzy of checking bags, retrieving boarding passes and clearing security, “is the perfect time for the bar,” she said.

Alcohol is served at bars and restaurants in both terminals between 6 a.m. and 2 a.m. But the airports commission, which owns and operates MSP, wants the flexibility to set the hours of on-site alcohol sales. About 10% of MSP’s flights, or about 5,000 passengers, board before 6 a.m. every day, according to MAC spokesman Patrick Hogan.

“Many people have been up since 3 a.m. or before and want a Bloody Mary, mimosa or other drink while waiting to board,” Hogan said. “People essentially begin their vacation when they get to the airport.”

Staff at Barrio, a Latin-oriented restaurant and tequila bar, say it’s not unusual for lines of 70 to 80 people to form before 6 a.m. on busy travel days, waiting to order a drink. Bartender Misty Law says some would-be imbibers occasionally try to squeeze through Barrio’s metal security gates before the restaurant opens at 4:30 a.m. in a futile attempt to get to the bar. “By 6 o’clock we have a stream of [drink] tickets to fill. It’s a challenge,” she said.

Befuddled travelers

The effort to change the law comes after an overhaul of the airport’s food and beverage offerings in recent years, and as a record number of passengers — nearly 40 million — flew to or from the Twin Cities last year. The MAC’s attempt at the Legislature last year, which was specific to MSP airport, was folded into a broader measure encompassing several liquor-related laws, which fell flat.

Hogan said customers are often befuddled after their request for a beer or cocktail is denied — especially since “many airports around the globe begin serving between 4 and 5 a.m. or serve alcohol 24 hours a day.”

Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt agrees.

“International hub airports like Minneapolis-St. Paul are places where clocks are almost irrelevant when it comes to things like eating and drinking,” he said. “While it may seem unusual to some that someone may want to have a drink at six in the morning, there are people who do.”

Harteveldt, of San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group, said as long as passengers’ “behavior doesn’t pose a threat to airline safety or to the traveling public, then the airport really should have the flexibility to fix its hours.”

But Terrie Castle, who has worked at MSP restaurants for 41 years, says demand for alcohol at the airport may be limited to outlets near flights to Las Vegas or Caribbean charters.

“Joe Business Guy wants a cup of coffee at breakfast at that time of day,” she said.

Airport business

More expansive hours permitting alcohol is an economic issue for the airports commission, its restaurants and the people who work there.

“I’m speculating, but the impact could be thousands of dollars every day,” said David Koecheler, airport operations manager of Aero Service Group, which operates Stone Arch brewpub and Lake Wine Kitchen + Bar in Terminal 1 (Lindbergh), in addition to Barrio.

The MAC’s Hogan contends that if liquor, beer and wine could be served earlier, a larger number of restaurants would find it financially viable to open before 6 a.m. That, in turn, could result in more dining (and beverage) options for passengers arriving late on international flights and those making connections, in addition to travelers departing on early flights, he said.

On Friday morning at Terminal 2, home to Sun Country Airlines and its multitude of leisure travelers, many passengers had already donned shorts and flip-flops in anticipation of jetting off to warmer climes. A few offered their opinion about the restriction on alcohol sales.

“For some people, I think it would help them relax before their flight, so it would be good to have a choice,” said Katrina Kueber of Hopkins.

Jake Nelson of Brule, Wis., a self-proclaimed spokesman for a group of friends en route to Orlando, was all-in for more expansive hours to drink.

“I’m for booze,” he said. “I’m on vacation.”