- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2008

If you snooze you lose - $7, that is, if you are a passenger on JetBlue Airways.

The airline announced Monday that it is replacing disposable in-flight pillows with take-home pillow and blanket packets available for purchase on board.

JetBlue considers the change an environmental move - saving millions of paper-covered pillows every year from going to the dumpster - as well as a way to eke out more revenue, said airline spokeswoman Alison Eshelman.

To assuage passengers who aren’t happy about losing their free pillows, the airline is throwing in a $5 coupon good at Bed Bath & Beyond stores.

“What we wanted to do was help the consumer offset the choice that they would make on a plane,” said Gary Goldberg, chief innovative officer of Clean Brands, maker of the Clean Rest pillow. “Really, what Jet Blue’s doing is they’re trading a cost and extending their reach into the consumer’s preference further than they normally would, but give them something special also. Whether you want to buy a mixed drink or a pillow, they’ll just swipe your card. Some people may want to buy both,” he said with a laugh.

Those drinks might cost you more, though. US Airways raised its price for in-flight alcoholic beverages from $5 to $7 on Friday, and started charging $1 for coffee and tea and $2 for water, soda or juice.

US Airways officials said the initial response to the changes was positive.

“The reports we’re getting from flight attendants are that things are running very smoothly,” said Jim Olson, spokesman for US Airways. “We haven’t had any real issues with initial implementation. Passengers feel the pain at the gas pumps, but they understand why we’re doing this. The reality is, they understand the situation the airlines are in right now.”

Not all US Airways employees are on board with the change.

“It’s not going to stop the fares from going up,” said Rob Wessinger, New York chapter president for the US Airways Association of Flight Attendants. “They have to go back to where they used to be. People drive up to a gas station and it costs $4 a gallon. And what do they do? They pay it. Why? Because they have to. The airline has to go in that direction or there will not be a lot of survivors in this industry.”

As US Airways policy introduces the policy, officials said, passengers who complain probably could get beverages free of charge. But flight attendants are directed to sell drinks unless extenuating circumstances arise, Mr. Olson said.

“The flight attendants’ first goal is safety, so the flight attendants have the discretion to make that call,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we’re a business and this is a product line for us. … At the end of the day, complaining about it is not going to get you something.”

The airline will continue to offer free beverages on trans-Atlantic and shuttle flights and to unaccompanied minors, said Alin Boswell, Washington chapter president for the US Airways flight attendants union. He said such small charges frustrate passengers who are accustomed to free services.

“I think it’s an absurd move,” he said. “It’s not going to stem the dramatic losses in terms of the bottom line. In the fall when all the passenger reductions take place and prices shoot up, I think that will drive up hostility.

“I think it’s going to kill some of the demand, but eventually attitudes will change a little bit in terms of their expectations. US Airways have done a fine job of lowering expectations of air travel.”

Travel authorities call the new fees a sign of the times.

“Airlines are struggling just like the nation and world with fuel costs, but they were struggling before gas prices skyrocketed,” said Martha Meade, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “Some travelers might prefer that they charge more for the ticket and give them a cold drink and a blanket.”

Airlines are trying to cope with jet fuel prices that have doubled since 2000, said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents travelers from large corporations.

But airlines can’t raise prices without risking the loss of a leisure travelers, who make up at least a third of the airline customer base.

“My sense of it is from a passenger standpoint, they’re frustrated by having to pay for what was previously baked into the price of the ticket,” Mr. Mitchell said. “Is this going to come back and bite the airlines? Probably. But the question is, are the airlines going to be around for a backlash?”

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