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Why do airlines still float free drinks?  Sep 04, 2008

One by one, the nation's airlines have snatched back freebies that fliers once took for granted -- baggage checks, meals. (Whoever thought there would come a day when we would miss airline food?) But one service remains relatively unscathed: the complimentary beverage. So why haven't the airlines zapped this perk with the same miserly zeal?

True, US Airways started charging passengers for coffee, tea, sodas and juices this month. But a host of other airlines, including United, Continental, Delta and American, haven't followed. Industry experts say customer service and secondary security concerns have kept the drinks flowing.And to take them away would be -- you know -- the last straw.

"It seems mean-spirited to deny passengers a beverage," says Joseph P. Schwieterman, a public service management professor at DePaul University. "Airlines still need to go through the motions of appearing they have some onboard service. And it's the only time in the flight a passenger talks to an airline employee: the last remnant of personal touch in airline travel."

Schwieterman points out that as the beverage cart crawls through the aisle, attendants can check on passengers -- and spot potential flight disruptions. "It's a chance to solve problems and for the attendants to assess what's going on."

What is more, federal law requires attendants on all flights, says Jan Brueckner, an economics professor at the University of California at Irvine. "If all food and beverage service were dropped, the attendants would sit around with nothing to do."

Brueckner adds charging for beverages would prove impractical and only marginally cost-effective. "It saves 75 cents per person for 150 passengers; that's about $100. ... If I were in charge of an airline, I wouldn't charge for drinks. It's a small amount of money."

That hasn't stopped Spirit Airlines or US Airways from pulling free drinks. The new policy hasn't negatively impacted the flight attendants, says US Air spokeswoman Michelle Mohr: "They've told us they are able to move through the cabin more quickly, which provides more time for them to monitor the cabin."

American thinks otherwise. "Free beverage service allows our flight attendants to go through the aircraft, interact with customers and meet their needs," says American spokeswoman September Wade.

Not that industry experts believe free drinks will stay. "I wouldn't be surprised to see the airlines charge for those beverages, and probably sooner rather than later," says Henry H. Harteveldt, an analyst with Forrester Research in San Francisco.

"Even though [air travel] has been a historically all-inclusive product, now it's like going to the movies. All your ticket buys is a seat. Everything else, you'll have to pay for."

Why do airlines still float free drinks?

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