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Thank God Airlines Are Getting Rid of Free Pretzels

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Pretzels are the latest symbol of failure for the airline industry.

Continental Airlines has eliminated its distribution of free pretzels to coach class customers during domestic flights. When an airline stops giving away salty snacks some see harbingers of doom. For example, the New York Times writes:

"To me, the end of the free snack on Continental (which last fall was the last of the major airlines to eliminate free meals in coach) is merely the latest illustration of the accelerating decline in quality, and even availability, of cheap air service."

I must confess: It has never been entirely clear to me why airlines give away anything for free. Or—perhaps more to the point—why the media and passengers become apoplectic when they stop.

What exactly is the economic case for why I should subsidize the free pretzels distributed to my seatmates—with an increased cost to my airfare?

After all, I have no expectation of free popcorn when I go to the movie theater.

An airline isn't exactly analogous to a movie theater when it comes to getting free stuff—it's actually far worse.

Why?

Well, we don't expect movie theaters to give away popcorn to moviegoers for a very simple reason: Because popcorn costs money—and why on earth should anyone get something for nothing?

But the case for free stuff in the air is even less logical than that.

Each 'free' item that is distributed to passengers by an airline must be carried on an aircraft thousands of feet above the ground—and that comes at a substantial cost to someone.

That means that every pound—every gram of pretzel, in fact—burns additional fuel, and incurs additional logistical support costs.

Continental airlines, for example, says eliminating pretzels will save the airline $2.5 million a year.

We should applaud them for their cost cutting initiative: If I want pretzels I will pack them in my carryon bag or buy them myself.

Customers of airlines have long complained of Soviet style service in the air—and yet they expect to fly in a magical world where all amenities are provided free of charge.

Let us move to an à la carte model of air travel.

And let the airlines concentrate on the real problems: Managing fuel costs and hashing out the economic viability of their air routes.

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