Cost-cutting Ryanair, the European budget airline, is eliminating headrest covers, seat pockets and window blinds. Window blinds? American travelers could almost worry that U.S. airlines might be cutting out the glass from the windows.
Pressed by soaring fuel costs, economic uncertainties, fierce competition and tectonic shifts in travel since Sept. 11, 2001, airlines are dumping "frills" to meet the harsh new realities. This is besides ticket-price hikes announced in recent days.
Although few domestic carriers match the European cuts (removing reclining seats, fewer toilets, etc.), once-common amenities are being jettisoned port and starboard while once-free items are being sold, when they are even available at all.
The days of luxury liner service in the skies are a thing of the past. For better or worse, air travel can be more like riding a bus than sailing the QE2. American Airlines and Delta are cutting out pillows, upon which weary heads have long rested. Northwest has ended free meals and even meals for sale, selling a $3 snack box instead. Several carriers are boasting about the quality of their snacks -- a sleight of hand to divert from the fact that normal food has vanished.
For an industry reduced to distributing peanuts, the cuts are not peanuts at all. Food is a $2 billion item in the airline world budget. American hopes to save $675,000 by eliminating the pillows -- savings in cleaning and replacement costs and time spent tidying up the cabin. Northwest is reportedly eyeing the American and Delta pillow fight, too.
The reason that, increasingly, the frill is gone is simple enough. The airlines are losing their shirts. Some -- US Airways, United, Aloha -- are already in bankruptcy protection; others are flying in that direction. Delta has recently expressed concern whether it will have enough cash to do business.
In an industry that has lost $33 billion in the past three years and sees little but more red ink ahead, cuts are inevitable. More, charges are being levied for what was once free, and "old" prices are being raised.
In favor of snacks, Delta is eliminating most of its food for sale (it eliminated free meals in 2001) and is raising the tab for alcoholic beverages to $5. United is considering $5 snack boxes on flights of more than 2.5 hours. American, which offers complimentary granola bars and pretzels, last month began selling, instead of meals, a $3 snack box and $5 sandwiches and wraps on its flights of three hours or more.
America West is looking into charging $5 for checking bags and $1 for sodas. The carrier has delayed implementation of such practices until it can find an economical way to carry them out.
Excess baggage levies, usually ignored before, are being applied with expensive regularity: Northwest, for example, charges domestic-coach passengers at least $80 for more than two checked bags. Overweight bags cost at least $25 extra. Already, it can cost you $10 or more extra to order a ticket over the phone or in person and $20 or more for a paper ticket.
The budget lines, Southwest, Independence, etc. have always kept frills to a minimum while offering low prices. The challenge to the others is that if they lose the frills but the prices stay high, there is even less reason not to fly on the budgets. It will take careful balancing.
"Dissatisfaction with a lack of amenities is an area the industry needs to keep a close eye on," Linda Hirneise, executive director of travel industry research at J.D. Power and Associates, says in releasing a major consumer study on air passenger attitudes.
The study shows, among other things, that dissatisfaction with amenities ranks second among things passengers are most concerned about, after tight space in seats and aisles.
"A lot of it is relative to expectations, though," she says. "It's very important for the companies to communicate with their customers. Travelers bring certain expectations, and if they're met or not abused, things will go well. Our study shows that JetBlue has the highest ranking for amenities. But JetBlue really doesn't have many amenities beyond electronics. It's just that the customer gets what he or she expects.
"What we're seeing in low-cost carriers like JetBlue and Southwest is that airlines offering a consistent travel experience and that listen to what's important to passengers are proving to be very successful."
The impact of the cuts on the consumer is uncertain so far, although some observers believe the traveling public is pretty realistic.
Amy Ziff, editor-at-large for the giant travel search engine Travelocity, sees passengers needing to adjust to the new reality.
"As the major airlines transform themselves to be more like low-fare carriers with consistent deals, passengers should expect some trade-offs," she says.
"Low fares come at a cost, and as the major airlines strive to achieve the ultimate makeover, they must look different. For passengers who have been flying with the majors, that new look will be perceived as a pared down or more sparse flying experience.
"Frequent travelers may want to create a travel pack that they toss into their carry-on. At a minimum, it should contain a wrap or a sweatshirt, inflatable pillow or neck rest, earphones, a few snacks and a bottle of water."
There's no charge to bring that on a plane.
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