DUBLIN – For those of us peons who travel in coach, the idea of stealing the grungy blankets or busted headphones the airline provides is ludicrous. But for the folks up in business class, nicking blankets, pillows, eye masks and other swag apparently makes a lot of sense. As airlines have added ever-more fancy amenities to their business- and first-class cabins, theft has become an ever-growing problem. It seems that travellers forking out thousands for their tickets see nothing wrong with cleaning out the plane of all the portable valuables. Unfortunately for airlines, this may mean that the economics of business class aren’t going to work out. – Felicity Duncan
By Alison Sider and Andrew Tangel
(The Wall Street Journal) When Steve King jets across the Atlantic for work twice a month, he often comes back with souvenirs—from the plane.
At home, he sips brandy from his favourite British Airways glasses and his children curl up in premium Norwegian Air Shuttle blankets. Last year, British Airways began offering a soft, satin-edged blanket from the White Company, an upscale brand. Mr King has three of them.
“I’m definitely picky these days,” says Mr King, who runs a data-science company. “The quality of the stuff now is beautiful. It really makes it worthwhile.”
Fliers have for years walked off airplanes with items provided to premium customers. The fancier the amenities get in business and first class, the harder it is becoming for airlines to overlook all the filching.
The cost of replacing high-quality duvets, memory-foam pillows and plates, glasses and silverware can add up. Yet airlines hardly want to embarrass their most lucrative customers.
So some have started dropping gentle hints. United Airlines’ in-flight menus advise passengers which items are free to take and steer them to an online store where they can buy everything else.
Michele Kropf, a spokeswoman for British Airways, says: “We encourage [passengers] to try to grab 40 winks when they fly with us, rather than the bedding.”
Planes aren’t the cosiest places to spend the night, so airlines are going to great lengths to pamper customers who shell out thousands of dollars more for first and business-class seats. The extras have gotten so nice that many premium-class fliers—and on occasion, the opportunistic coach customer—refuse to part with them.
“Almost anything that is not nailed down will at some point disappear,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel-industry analyst and former airline marketing manager who has himself lifted mementoes from flights, including a tall glass from El Al on his first trip to Israel.
Some airlines accept that as a cost of doing business, sometimes with a wink. Years ago, American Airlines produced ashtrays whose backs read: “Formerly the property of American Airlines.” The airplane-shaped salt and pepper shakers on Virgin Atlantic flights proved so irresistible that the airline went along with it, stamping them “pinched from Virgin Atlantic.” Some 26,700 sets have gone missing over the last 12 months, the airline says.
Mr Harteveldt points to a decades-old commercial from now-defunct Braniff International Airways that touted the airline’s overhaul and featured a woman piling candies, a blanket and glasses into her bag before she makes off with the entire plane. “We’re not against souvenir hunting, so long as it doesn’t get out of hand,” the narrator said.
Most of the 1,700 lightweight blankets that Virgin started offering this year in upper class on its A330-200 aircraft have gone missing.
“In the first weeks, we thought, what happened to these day blankets? We were astounded,” says Daniel Kerzner, Virgin Atlantic’s vice president of customer experience. He says the airline sees the reaction as flattering and potentially even good for business, although it had to order more blankets.
So far, airlines aren’t taking a heavy-handed approach to pilfering, hoping to keep things friendly. Premium cabins—first and business class—account for 5.5% of international passenger traffic, but more than 30% of revenue, according to the International Air Transport Association.
“Airlines want to ensure they have made enough of an investment in their most valuable customers,” says Scot Hornick, a partner at Oliver Wyman, a consulting firm. Even some high-end blankets and pillows, when ordered in bulk, cost the airline just around $8 to $10 apiece, he says, a relatively modest investment.
“Our crews understand what’s for taking and what’s supposed to remain onboard and can kindly instruct customers accordingly,” says a Delta Air Lines Inc. spokeswoman. Fine to take: Tumi-branded amenity kits. Best to leave behind: dishes and silverware designed by the Italian firm Alessi.
That can make things awkward for flight attendants, says Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.
“Most people, if they’re called out on it, just put it back,” she says. “It’s just that anytime you’ve got to tell people they’re doing something quote-unquote wrong, there’s some apprehension.”
The price of premium-class tickets can run many thousands of dollars. On Wednesday, a one-way ticket from New York to London on British Airways cost nearly $8,800 on business class. A United business-class fare from Chicago to Paris cost as much as $12,962.
Some passengers say flight attendants have been happy to accommodate requests to take souvenirs. Liz Stephenson loved one of the blankets she used during her trip on Etihad Airways’ “residence”—a three-room suite that includes a private bathroom with a shower, a living room and a double bed.
“It’s the softness of it,” she says. “It’s just amazing. It’s finer than Egyptian cotton.” Ms Stephenson says getting permission was key. “I would never have taken that blanket except the flight attendant said I could.”
“It’s gotten way worse as the products have gotten better,” says SK Sharma, a 36-year-old frequent flier based in Del Mar, Calif.
After Delta rolled out Westin Hotels & Resorts-branded “Heavenly” bedding, Mr Sharma watched a seatmate stuff two duvets into a bag he brought for that purpose. More recently, he saw a passenger sweep through business class on an Emirates Airline flight from Los Angeles to Dubai, where fares run as high as $15,000, scooping up amenity kits, pillows and other items from empty seats.
United Airlines wanted to upgrade the mattress pads, pillows and blankets on its new sleep-focused, long-haul international business class, Polaris. The carrier needs to be able to wash and reuse the items to make the economics work, says Tarek Abdel-Halim, managing director of onboard products. “We’re not going to chase them down or stop them,” he says of pilferers, “but the idea is to make it clear to the customer.”
United’s Saks Fifth Avenue-designed duvets and blankets turned out to be so popular that the airline started selling them. In-flight menus steer passengers to an online store where the Polaris duvet is priced at $59.99 and the cooling-gel memory-foam pillow goes for $27.99.
Unfortunately for the airline, that is no competition for a five-finger discount.
Danny Kashou, 53, a business owner in San Diego, was impressed by the soft fabrics and Saks monograms on the blankets on an international trip earlier this year. “Heck, yeah, we took it,” Mr Kashou says. “We didn’t ask. We just stuck it in our carry-ons and walked off.”
“I’ve been flying this airline long enough,” he says. “I deserve it.”