Airlines want your money, but not your cash

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In researching my Well Mannered Traveler column for MSNBC.com this week, I discovered that just about every U.S. airline has gone “cashless” in the cabins.

Those that haven’t surely will.  So if you think you’ll want to buy a snack, a sandwich or a headset on your next flight, make sure you have your credit or debit card handy.

Continental, Delta and Northwest (Delta’s new partner) recently joined United, AirTran, Virgin America, Alaska, Frontier and Midwest in the cashless cabin movement.  Now that flight attendants are equipped with card readers, cash is no longer accepted for onboard purchases.

The airlines say they’re doing this for the convenience of passengers who will now “not have to deal with the hassle of fumbling for money.” Flight attendants say they like the new policy because it means no more having to keep track of cash and rushing around trying to make change.

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But many passengers aren’t so sure.  TripAdvisor.com recently did a survey on this topic and found that 54% of the 1,918 respondents would prefer paying for in-flight food and services with cash.  In the thumbs up/thumbs down survey that accompanies my column, 81% of the more than 5,000 people who voted in just the first twelve hours thought airlines should continue to accept cash.

Andy Johnson, of LeRoy, Ill., is one of those cash-only customers who’d like airlines to continue accepting cash on board. “Cash is king,” she said, “but people also need to carry appropriate bills. Whenever I travel, I always check out the costs and prepare in advance so that if I want to purchase something, I’m ready.”

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Cashless cabins also have some parents concerned. “I don’t like it,” said Colorado mom and family travel writer Amber Johnson. “I understand the convenience of not having to deal with counting out change. But what happens when my kids fly alone to see their grandparents? I really don’t want to have to go through the hassle of sending a credit card with them.”

She may not have to.

Snacks are complimentary for kids and adults on JetBlue Airways.

Complimentary meals are still served on some Continental and Hawaiian Airlines flights.

Some carriers, including Delta, Northwest, Frontier, Midwest and United, officially include the cost of a snack or meal in the unaccompanied minor fee. (On Frontier, the fee also includes use of the TV.) On Virgin America, which has been cashless since the airline’s 2007 launch, in-flight teams will provide an unaccompanied minor with complimentary snacks or meals “if they are hungry onboard and didn’t plan ahead,” said spokesperson Abby Lunardini. Alaska Airlines has had an unofficial practice to provide a free meal to unaccompanied minors who don’t have food with them, but a spokesperson says the policy will be formalized in early 2010.  And US Airways, which plans to go cashless in the first half of 2010, is “looking into things like vouchers, so unaccompanied minors without cards can purchase snacks or food,” said spokesperson Valerie Wunder.

To read the full column – and cast your vote on the whether or not airlines should continue to accept cash, please see: Airlines want your money, but not your cash on MSNBC.com.