Why have snacks returned, along with other airline perks?

Free snacks are making a comeback as airlines take advantage of lower oil prices to make air travel more pleasant for passengers.

David Goldman/AP
Ginny Barr center, is swarmed by her sisters Sarah and Molly as she arrives at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport from college in North Carolina to spend Thanksgiving at home in Georgia. The return of snacks to United Airlines will hit airports in time for the next holiday travel season.

A Dutch pastry called a stroopwafel and a regional rivalry in the Middle East may not seem related to US holiday air travel, but a recent announcement by United Airlines shows just how tightly economies are wound together.

United Airlines announced Wednesday that free snacks will return to economy class passengers in February 2016. The return of airplane snacks demonstrates a shift out of economic survival mode for airlines, and it indicates the possibility that air travel may become a little easier during the holidays and afterward.

It's a convergence of positive expectations, as airlines in better economic health try to make travel more pleasant for passengers, reported Airlines for America (A4A), a trade group for the airline industry.

"U.S. airlines are currently achieving something few thought possible: profitability," according to A4A. "For the first time in years, airlines now have the financial resources to invest in new aircraft, expand service, improve facilities at airports and offer new in-flight amenities."

Airline profits are improving partly as a result of years spent trying to lower costs, but partly because fuel prices have dropped, A4A spokeswoman Jean Medina told The Christian Science Monitor.

Oil cost less than $40 per barrel Thursday – down 60 percent from 2014 highs – as the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) announced a three-year high in oil output for November, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Saudi Arabia has kept its vast oil production high, forcing the rest of OPEC to do the same, to try and lower oil prices past the ability of its geopolitical rivals – mainly Iran and Russia – to sustain their economies, Roby Barrett, an expert on oil and the Persian Gulf at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., told The Christian Science Monitor in an interview.

"The Saudis can deal with this problem a lot better than the people they see as their implacable enemies in the region," Mr. Barrett says. "[The rest of] OPEC doesn't have a choice because they have to have the money [from oil exports]."

As Saudi Arabia and the rest of OPEC floods the markets with oil, an improving economy is also giving American travelers more spare cash for air fare. The number of Thanksgiving travelers hit the highest level since the 2008 economic downturn, according to A4A. The group projects the holiday season in December and January to be equally busy, up 3 percent from the same time last year.

With more money on hand for spending, Ms. Medina says some airlines are reinvesting in apps, others into new airplanes, and some are changing how passengers pay for luggage.

United Airlines has turned its attention to free snacks, including the caramel-filled stroopwafel pastry from the Netherlands, as a nod to the company's global destinations and customer feedback, United Airlines public relations manager Karen May told The Christian Science Monitor.

The return of free snacks puts United Airlines back on par with other snack-offering airlines such as JetBlue, Delta, and Southwest, according to NBC News. The global convergence will make itself felt on United Airlines in a breakfast of Italian coffee and Dutch pastries.

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