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 But no airline copied and the charge was rescinded in March 2009.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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How airlines could turn into flying casinos – without gambling

What fees are coming next for the airline travel? Photo: Allegiant.

What fees are coming next for the airline travel? Photo: Allegiant.

Last week, Andrew Levy, president and COO of Allegiant, told us that he predicts major airlines like United, Delta and American will at some point charge for carry-on bags, as his carrier does. So what else does he predict for the future?

Basically, Levy guesses airlines will continue to tweak ancillary offerings so they charge different prices to different people. At some level, carriers already do this with the extras they sell. And airlines certainly do it with the price of tickets — almost everyone on a plane is paying a different fare.

But perhaps it’s time to get ready for price discrimination 2.0 on board the airplane.

“With the technology on the plane flight attendants are going to be able to differentiate costumers,” Levy said. “It’s kind of like a casino here in Las Vegas. They treat you a certain way depending on how much you play. I think the airline industry is moving more in that direction. We’ll be a little more targeted on a customers by customer basis.

As for what airlines might be able to sell in the future? The restroom is off-limits as a money maker, but everything else? It’s all fair game, Levy said.

“You are limited by your imagination by some degree,” Levy said. “People will buy the things they value.”

Here’s an interesting fact about Allegiant. Its flight attendants earn a commission on whatever they sell. That includes food, drinks and even better seats that are empty. “They are getting a piece of the revenue,” he said.

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Allegiant Air announces four new routes from LAX

Allegiant announced new routes from LAX on Tuesday. Photo: Allegiant.

Allegiant announced new routes from LAX on Tuesday. Photo: Allegiant.

Allegiant Air announced four new seasonal routes from Los Angeles International Airport today. I don’t see it in the press release, but I expect these flights will operate twice per week, as is the airline’s strategy in most markets.

  • Cedar Rapids, Iowa – begins June 6, 2014 with fares as low as $92*
  • Great Falls, Mont. – begins June 6, 2014 with fares as low as $88*
  • Kalispell, Mont. – begins June 5, 2014 with fares as low as $89*
  • McAllen, Texas – begins June 5, 2014 with fares as low as $99*

These routes aren’t really meant for Angelenos, since Allegiant does the bulk of its business transporting passengers from smaller cities into bigger ones, like L.A. (And selling those folks vacation packages for the big city.) But these routes, especially Kalispell, could be of use to some L.A. travelers. Kalispell is the gateway to Glacier National Park, and it’s not easy to get to. On every other airline, passengers must connect.  Airchive.com says Delta has the only non-stop flight to Kalispell, and it’s only once per week — on Saturdays.

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Quote of the weekend: On Allegiant Air’s seating plan

The Las Vegas Sun has a great interview this weekend with Allegiant Air President and COO Andrew Levy and senior VP of Planning Jude Bricker.

I recommend the whole thing, but this part is my favorite. Bricker is explaining the perfect airplane seat for Allegiant.

“You want it to be like a Herman Miller desk chair, just a diaphragm between you and the guy’s knees behind you.”

The Q & A talks a bit about seat selection. Bricker says selling advanced seats is worth $60 million to Allegiant each year. That’s a lot, considering seating assignments were essentially free for decades.

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