Snacks on a Plane! The Ascent of Airline Advertising

Complimentary edibles on flights are back, thanks to what the industry is calling "snackvertising," a win-win-win-win for flyers, airlines, advertisers, and the company that makes it all possible.


The other day, I was half-asleep on a one-hour USAirways flight from Boston's Logan airport to D.C. Reagan National, when I heard the voice of a stewardess walking down the aisle offering snacks to passengers. You're dreaming, I told myself, there is no such thing as complimentary snacks on flights. Then I made out the crisp rustle of not just one, but many potato chip packages. I was suddenly wide awake in time for the stewardess to thrust, not only a baggie, but a veritable snack box into my lap.

Malnourished air commuters, your dream is now reality. USAirways has teamed up with the marketing company Air Advertainment to provide snack boxes to passengers. The vessels contain "premium snacks," -- more than your average peanut baggie -- that cost nothing for the passenger. Free food! But, how?

You pay for your snackage with your eyeballs, feasting on a "hands-on and in-depth experience," which is a conspicuous snackvertisement enveloping the box. On this particular day, the Pita Chips, shortbread cookies, and dried fruit were brought to me by Gilt, a members only shopping site, which used the box to offer $50 off a purchase of $100.* Did the snack enhance my flying experience and thus change my opinion of the airline?  You bet. Free food, deep discounts, mid-flight shortbread: it's the little things.

Way back when, airlines offered complimentary treats on flights, ads or no. But in the last 30 years, and especially in the decade after 9/11, the largest air carriers faltered and amenities disappeared. (Absurd fees popped up, too.) When food reappeared, it came with a price tag. Now it comes with a sponsor. 

It's the inevitable collision of two trends. On the one hand, you have the desperation of airlines to account for rising costs, particularly fuel, by holding down ticket prices, slashing amenities, and driving up fees. On the other hand, you have the famous ubiquity of advertising, which has crept onto buses, homes, people, phones, and even into surprising corners of your television. For example, networks have been digitally placing ads in reruns of old sitcom episodes (here's a recent example from "How I Met Your Mother").

It's hard to imagine many customers complaining about free food in midair. A generation ago, edible amenities were as common on airplanes as the wings. But these are less flush times, and anything gratis is considered primo customer service. "It's a triple win," Air Advertainment CEO and founder Ryan Matay put it to me. Make that quadruple. Gilt gets eyes, Air Advertisement takes its cut, USAirways gets a customer satisfaction boost with a fully sponsored product, and I get snacks without taking out my wallet.

Matay wouldn't disclose to me how exactly USAirways saves money. Presumably it costs the airline something to provide the snack boxes, whereas not providing snacks cuts costs. But as Matay explained, even if they have to spend a little money it's worth it to "enhance their offering to their passenger." That is, assuming most passengers don't mind their cookies with a side of creative branding.

Image: Airline Trends

* This post originally stated that the offer was $50 off of a $300 purchase. We regret the error.