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Airlines to Harried Flyers: ‘Relax, Have a Pretzel’

For the average flyer, squeezed into a cramped coach-class seat and nickel-and-dimed to distraction, air travel has never been worse. But flush with outsized profits, and under fire for keeping airfares high even as fuel costs have plummeted, the full-service carriers are taking steps to stem the rising tide of anger and frustration.

No, the airlines aren’t adding legroom to their coach seating. Neither are they reversing the fee-for-all trend. Nor are they restoring the lost luster of their increasingly tepid loyalty programs.

What the Big 3 airlines are doing is upgrading what was once considered a given aspect (as in free) of the travel experience: inflight snacks. Not meals, mind you; just snacks.

American, which hasn’t offered free snacks on most coach flights since 2003, this month is restoring free snacks on transcon flights, and will expand that to include all domestic flights by April. Depending on the flight departure time, passengers will be given either Biscoff cookies or pretzels, “rotated on a seasonal basis.”

For its part, United this week begins its complimentary snack service on flights within North America, to and from Central America, and between Honolulu and Guam. On morning flights, flyers will receive stroopwafels, Dutch toasted-waffle cookies. And during the rest of the day, the snack menu changes to a Asian-style mix of rice crackers, sesame sticks, and wasabi peas, or a mix of mini pretzel sticks, Cajun corn sticks, and ranch soy nuts.

(Helpful hint from United: “Stroopwafels… may be enjoyed straight out of the package or warmed on top of a cup of coffee or tea to soften the waffle and melt the caramel filling.”)

RELATED: Air Passenger Study: Flyers Happy to Pay for Upgrades. Really?

Delta, the only one of the Big Three to have kept free snacks in place post-9/11 and through the most recent recession, is adding new items to its coach food-for-sale menu, beginning this week. The three new wraps, from Luvo, will be available for purchase on flights longer than 1,400 miles within the U.S., the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico. And they will be available for free, but only to Comfort+ customers on Delta flights between New York and Los Angeles or San Francisco.

Where’s the Beef?

Pretzels, cookies, salted nuts? That such cheap, half-hearted gestures are being treated as big news by the likes of USA Today and Bloomberg is a clear indication of just how bare-bones the airlines’ economy-class product has become.

And the fact that these paltry offerings are being made at a time when the airlines are investing heavily in upgrades to their premium-cabin amenities and spending millions to buy back their own shares makes the moves that much more dispiriting.

The airlines’ clear message to average travelers: Let ’em eat cake. Or, Throw the dog a bone.

To which flyers will be likely to respond: Where’s the beef? Or, Too little, too late.

Reader Reality Check

What should the airlines do to upgrade the coach-class experience?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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