Why are drinks free on airplanes?

Why do most airlines still offer free drinks? Photo: Nick Ares, via Creative Commons.

Why do most airlines still offer free drinks? Photo: Nick Ares, via Creative Commons.

I’ve written a lot recently about how everything is for sale on an airplane. But I’ve been puzzled about one thing. Drinks remain free. But why?

I asked Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry expert at Hudson Crossing in San Francisco, and a general expert on all matters relating to the passenger experience. He said taking away away a decades-long freebie is difficult to do, though it has happened before. (See checked baggage.) What is more likely, Harteveldt said, is that airlines might continue to experiment with super cheap fares that have literally no amenities.

“You can go back into the history books in the late 1950 and 1960s,” Harteveldt said. “Between the Mainland and Hawaii some airlines offered what they called thrift class where meals and beverages were available for sale. Some airlines could again institute a fare where you don’t get anything. If you take a look at Frontier Airlines, they basically take a tact that is more like ‘the more you pay, the more you get.’”

Ultra low cost carriers in the United States, including Spirit and Allegiant, charge for drinks, as do many similar carriers abroad. Major legacy carriers here have been reluctant to do so, with one exception — US Airways, which in 2008 and 2009 briefly charged for drinks. But no airline copied and the charge was rescinded in March 2009.

Allegiant president and ancillary revenue guru Andrew Levy told me recently that charging for drinks is helpful in two respects. One, it takes what had been a loss for the airline and turns it into some revenue. And two, it allows the airline to stock a lot less product. When drinks are free, he said, people take cans even when they don’t want them.

Why do you think drinks are free on major airlines? And do you suspect this will ever change?

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  • Tony Edwards

    I think if they start to charge a dollar or two for a 30 cent can of coke or bottle water it will be the end of the line. what next weighing us as we get on the plane and charge people to fly by the pound ? :)

    • FrankofAmerica

      Air Samoa does just that. Charging its passengers by the pound. Many European low cost carriers charge for water, soft drinks etc.