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NEW YORK, Feb 2, 2016:

After 15 years of near austerity, US airlines are restoring some small perks for passengers crammed into coach.

Don’t expect ample legroom or free checked bags. But fliers will find improved snacks, a larger selection of free movies and — on a few select routes — the return of free meals.

American Airlines became the latest carrier yesterday to add something back. It announced the return of free snacks in the economy section and more free entertainment options on some aircraft.

American, which recently merged with US Airways, hasn’t offered free snacks since 2003. US Airways stripped passengers of snacks in 2008.

Following the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent recession, US airlines removed almost every perk imaginable on domestic flights. Hot meals disappeared along with legroom, blankets and pillows.

“It was really about survival,” says Fernand Fernandez, vice president of global marketing at American.

When Continental Airlines stopped giving out free cookies and mini bags of pretzels in 2011 — after its merger with United Airlines — it said the move would save US$2.5 million (RM10.5 million) a year.

Since then, mergers have created four mega-carriers that control more than 80% of the domestic market.

They started charging US$25 for each checked suitcase. And more seats have been crammed into planes to maximise profits. Now the industry is making record profits.

“What has changed ,” Fernandez says, “is that the airlines have been able to fix our core business and be able to reinvest in our customers.”

That means new planes, larger overhead bins and for a long time, nicer first class cabins.

Now a bit of that wealth is trickling back to coach.

This month, American will start offering Biscoff cookies or pretzels to passengers flying between New York and San Francisco or Los Angeles.

By April, those snacks will expand to all other domestic routes. In May, American will bring back full meal service for coach passengers between Dallas and Hawaii.

“We know that we have customers who select our airline based on price and we’re really excited to offer them a product that is superior to choosing an ultra-low cost carrier,” Fernandez says.

United recently announced the return of free snacks on its flights starting in February. Delta Air Lines — the other big legacy carrier — never removed snacks, even during bankruptcy.

American is also expanding its complimentary entertainment on domestic flights with in-seat TVs. Passengers will be able to choose from up to 40 movies, 60 TV shows and 300 music albums.

Delta has taken a different path, focusing more on entertainment that passengers can stream to their own devices. It now offers about 67 movies and 138 TV shows for free.

“These are token investments in the passenger experience that will not cost airlines a lot of money but are small ways to make passengers a little bit happier,” says Henry Harteveldt, the founder of travel consultancy Atmosphere Research Group.

“American and United realised: We don’t let other airlines have an advantage on price, why let them have one on pretzels.”

Families first

Meanwhile, United is trying to bring back a bit of the friendly skies, allowing families with young children to board early.

The move, which takes effect Feb 15, lets families with children age two and under get settled in their seats before the rush of other passengers clamouring for overhead bin space.

United was the last holdout. It has forced families to board with everybody else since it revamped its boarding process in April 2012.

Policies vary from airline to airline. Some let families skip in front of everybody while others let the first class and elite passengers onto the plane first, then give families a head start on the rest of the passengers.

It’s a delicate balance. The airlines want to board passengers as fast as possible and take most of the pain out of the process. However, they also want to reward elite members by letting them settle in early.

Additionally, airlines are making money selling early boarding directly to passengers or via credit card partnerships.

Those who get on the plane first get a spot in the overhead bin for their bag; those who board last are typically forced to check their bags at the gate.

Sandra Pineau-Boddison, United’s senior vice president of customers, says the move comes as part of a larger effort by the Chicago-based airline to be more attentive to passengers’ needs.

“It takes a little bit of the stress out of the travel situation,” she says. “Some things are just the right thing to do.”

It also helps the airline get a plane out on time.

Having all the strollers gate-checked at once frees baggage handlers who later have to deal with storing carry-on bags under the plane because there is no overhead bin space left.

The current US airline family boarding policies are:

— Alaska Airlines: Families with children under two can board at the beginning of the process, before first class and elite customers.

— American Airlines: Families with children board before first class and elite members upon request only. The age is at the discretion of the gate agent.

— Delta Air Lines: Families with car seats or strollers can board before first class and elite members.

— Frontier Airlines: Families with children age three and younger board after the airline’s elite members and those who have paid for extra legroom but before the rest of the plane.

— Hawaiian Airlines: Families with children under the age of two can board before first class and elite members.

— JetBlue Airways: Families with children under the age of two board after elite members and passengers in premium seats but before the rest of the plane.

— Southwest Airlines: An adult travelling with a child six years old or younger may board during Family Boarding, which occurs after the “A” group has boarded and before the “B” group begins boarding.

— Spirit Airlines: Families board after passengers who paid extra to board early and those who purchased space for a carry-on bag in the overhead bin.

— United Airlines: Starting Feb 15, families with children age two and under can board before first class and elite members.

— Virgin America: Families with young children can board after first class passengers, those in the extra legroom seats, passengers who paid for early boarding, those with elite status and those with a Virgin America credit card. They do get to board before other coach passengers.

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