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November 22, 2006

The Infantilization of the Air Traveler


It started back in the 20th century, with all the comforts of the golden era of commercial flight: clean blankets and pillows, fresh food and water, lots of room between rows of seats, clean bathrooms, nicely vacuumed planes, etc.

Then came the slow but steady creep of cost-cutting, resulting in an outcry heard 'round the world in recent decades about the loss of amenities and accustomed comforts.

The only thing that occurs to me when all the complaining and shouting rises to a fever pitch, occupying endless column inches of newpaper and online space as it does to this day, is, why the fuss?

Why should the matter of snacks or food offered on a plane be of concern to the traveler?

Or the ability to plug in a laptop or iPod or whatever device you like to busy yourself with?

Haven't people ever heard of stores and restaurants?

Packing your own meal?

And while you're at it an extra battery, fully-charged, for each device you intend to use on your trip?

Since when did the airlines become mother?

It's related to the whole frequent flyer system, a fraud and ruse that stops just shy of the gift card as being the most profound hoax ever perpetrated on the consumer.

I mean, why would the prospect of more misery, offered free, be of use or value to anyone with a modicum of sense?

All these issues are simply ways of distracting the traveler from the dour reality of air travel circa 2006.

Today's Wall Street Journal Personal Journal front-page story by Melanie Trottman, headlined "The Return of the Midflight Muffin," along with its accompanying graphic (top) covering 1/8 of an inside page, occasioned this post.

The article follows.

    The Return of the Midflight Muffin

    Faring Better, U.S. Airlines Are Restoring In-Flight Perks; Coach Still Gets the Shaft

    After years of yanking everything from pillows to free booze from planes, financially recovering U.S. airlines are starting to add back perks — and even invest in new ones. But you'll have to be sitting in the front of the plane or flying internationally to get most of them.

    AMR Corp.'s American Airlines recently added back silverware and hot cloth towels to its domestic first-class cabins, replacing the plastic utensils and disposable hand wipes that had become standard during tougher times. Delta Air Lines this fall reintroduced midflight snacks in coach on international routes and started handing out amenity kits with socks, eye masks and earplugs. Northwest Airlines last month started beefing up its snack service in first class on shorter domestic flights, where passengers had been getting pretzels and bags of mixed nuts. Now, flight attendants roam the aisles with baskets of fresh fruit, muffins and other snacks.

    Meanwhile, in a change that will benefit some domestic coach travelers, Delta in September started adding on-demand digital television, movies and games at every seatback on select longer U.S. flights where it is competing aggressively for customer loyalty. Those flights include ones from Atlanta and New York to cities such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle and San Francisco.

    An industry downturn following the Sept. 11 attacks, coupled with high fuel costs, led most airlines to begin eliminating perks as they sought ways to cut costs. Also, traditional carriers have lost customers to discount airlines such as JetBlue Airways that not only offer lower prices, but, in some cases, also have more amenities for travelers. Now, with their bottom lines improving, traditional carriers are adding back perks in the hopes of luring back former customers and attracting new ones.

    Carriers are also hoping to appease disgruntled frequent fliers. While business travelers tend to be more loyal because they like to amass frequent-flier miles on one airline, they can also be finicky and are prone to switch when amenities disappear or a competitor adds a better product, such as business-class seats that recline more fully on international flights. The cuts "didn't go over well with the business-class and first-class customers," said Terry Trippler, an airline expert with online travel agency myvacationpassport.com. "Once those people started to complain enough, the airlines had to sit up and listen."

    The airlines are hoping to placate travelers such as Terry Jones. Mr. Jones has flown 130,000 miles so far this year, mostly on American and often in first class. Sometimes he uses upgrades; sometimes he pays the extra price so he can stretch out his 6-foot-1-inch frame and work comfortably on his laptop. Recently, "the food has improved and the hot towels are back instead of some kind of weird napkin," said Mr. Jones, who runs a travel consulting company from Lake Tahoe. "The little things can make a difference, particularly if you're a frequent flier." He's still awaiting the return of individual salt and pepper shakers in domestic first class.

    Though airlines won't disclose how much they've saved overall by cutting amenities, food-and-beverage costs alone have dropped by one-third since 2000, according to the Air Transport Association. In the first quarter of this year, U.S. airlines collectively spent $444 million on food and beverage, down from $662 million six years earlier, the trade group said. The average that major airlines spend on food per passenger has dropped to $2.22 this year from $4.91 in 2000 and $6.22 in 1992, according to the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics. For the past decade, American generally spent the most until 2004, when UAL Corp.'s United Airlines started consistently ranking as the biggest spender.

    Over the years, perks have disappeared gradually. First, meals in coach largely vanished on domestic flights, as did meals in first class on some routes. The remaining meals often were shadows of their former selves; dishes like hot chicken cordon bleu were replaced by pizza or cold sandwich wraps. Most airlines started selectively charging for both cocktails and food. Cloth napkins disappeared because of the cost to launder them.

    As jet-fuel prices soared, the cuts grew deeper. American eventually pulled pillows off many flights to save on the cost of cleaning and restocking them.

    What premium-cabin customers have griped about the most over the past several years is the lack of choice in-flight, particularly for food, airlines say. Now, carriers are revamping menus with an eye toward variety. American traditionally served only warm, mixed nuts to welcome its passengers aboard in first class on transcontinental flights. Now it offers marinated cheese antipasto as an alternative. United started offering a dessert choice of ice cream or cheese on flights to Europe in business class. Even Continental Airlines, which was rare among airlines in having maintained meals in all classes after the Sept. 11 attacks, recently added hot appetizer choices to the cold ones in its international premium cabins.

    Still, even in business and first class, today's meals may suffer in comparison to those offered in the days before the cuts. "We don't serve lobster tail anymore," said Lauri Curtis, American's vice president of onboard services.

    Generally, coach passengers are still getting the shaft, with cramped legroom, scant amounts of free food and cabins that are more crowded than ever. American isn't planning to reintroduce pillows or the "more legroom throughout coach" initiative it largely nixed in 2003. Seatback television and movies are still rare on most carriers. Power connections for laptops can be hard to find in coach. And a laptop can be difficult to work on if the person in front of you reclines their seat.

    But some airlines are upgrading the food they sell in coach. Citing passenger feedback, Northwest recently began offering healthier, larger snack options for sale, including cheese and wheat crackers and a larger package of trail mix. The catch: Northwest also increased the price of a snack box, to $5 from $3.

    Some other changes are pretty small and seem to be more about burnishing an airline's image than about traveler comfort. American, for example, has started offering butter-cream mints in domestic first class just before landing so flight attendants can personally thank customers for choosing the airline. Delta reintroduced printed menus in coach on most international flights this summer.

    Still, Delta also started offering international passengers in coach one complimentary alcoholic beverage with their meals. That's an improvement over Delta's requirement since October 2002 that these passengers pay for all their drinks. But it's still not as good as what passengers got before then: unlimited free booze.

November 22, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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We're certainly spoiled here in the Asia Pacific region.

Even on a 2 hour flight from HK to Manila (1 economy round fare inclusive of tax costs around U$290 on Cathay Pacific) serves a hot sandwich (crusty bun with random meat filling), tea, coffee and unlimited alcohol (not that I imbibe of course, dehydrating liquids on planes are not my idea of fun). Of course also with the 'free' seat back multi-channel start anytime entertainment system. Blankets and pillows still definitely available.

Cathay is also definitely profitable.

The peanuts and pretzels on CX have disappeared though. I miss those pretzels.

Posted by: IB | Nov 23, 2006 6:30:41 PM

Unless that unlimited booze was materializing out of wormhole in the cabin galley, it wasn't free. Air travel is no fun, but you get what you pay for. It seems that any time the airlines have offered a choice between amenities and lower cost, most people choose the cheaper flight. Anyone know what an average NY/LA ticket cost in 1950? I suspect it was more, perhaps a lot more, compared to the median income than the cost of a first class ticket is today.

Posted by: Mike Beversluis | Nov 22, 2006 3:30:27 PM

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