Ted offers choices, for a price

United Airlines offshoot sells its passengers items from `boutique in the sky'

December 09, 2005|By MARK SKERTIC | MARK SKERTIC,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Coffee? Soft drink? A pair of sunglasses or half-pound box of chocolates?

Travelers aboard United Airlines' Ted flights have a new set of choices. And, just like in-flight meals, choosing one of these new items will require reaching for a wallet or purse.

The airline has begun offering its self-described "boutique in the sky" on Ted, the offshoot of United that serves vacation destinations such as Orlando, Fla.; Las Vegas; and Phoenix.

"It combines fun, in-flight entertainment and convenience - things that are all part of Ted," said United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski.

Similar selling points were made in 2004, when Ted flights were used to introduce pre-packaged snack packs for $5. The boxes of chips, cookies and candy have since been expanded to other United flights.

The new in-flight sales will bring in a little extra revenue for United, which plans to exit bankruptcy protection next year. And flight attendants - who have seen paychecks shrink as the airline reorganizes - have been promised a 2 percent commission on what they sell.

The in-flight store is on a cart that flight attendants wheel down the aisle after dispersing drinks and pretzels. Items sell for $5 to $25.

The airline said its pricing is designed to be comparable to what's charged at the airport. For $5, travelers can pick up a set of two toothbrushes and toothpaste, a deck of cards emblazoned with Ted's orange logo or a headphone splitter, to enable two people to listen to the same iPod or other device.

Ten bucks will buy a half-pound of Fannie Mae Pixies, or markers and a drawing pad. At the $25 level, choices include compact sunglasses, a BlackBerry charger, poker kits, and "chameleon" earrings that look like diamonds indoors and pink sapphires outside.

Twenty-six items are in the Ted catalog, which travelers will find in their seatbacks. New items will be added periodically, Urbanski said.

Ted began flying in 2004, part of an effort to recapture some of the travelers who were moving to Southwest Airlines and other low-cost carriers. Ted has 226 departures daily. The in-flight store is available on all flights over 2 1/2 hours, except those to international destinations.

Opening the store required reaching an agreement with the flight attendants' union.

The biggest concern was that it not affect their safety responsibilities, said Christopher Clarke, spokesman for the Association of Flight Attendants. "It doesn't fall under our traditional duties," he said. "But we were able to work it out in a cooperative way."

On each flight, two flight attendants are designated sellers, and they receive 2 percent commissions on the total merchandise sales.

In-flight sales are common on international flights, where travelers look forward to avoiding taxes and other extra charges on items such as liquor and perfume. But on domestic flights, no other airline has opened a rolling store.

Costs are increasing throughout the industry, though. Charging for headsets is now commonplace. Several airlines now offer packaged meals for a price. Air Canada recently began charging $2 for in-flight pillows and blankets. American Airlines recently experimented with hand-held entertainment systems travelers could rent.

For frequent travelers, United's in-flight entertainment store promises to be a source of frustration, said Joe Brancatelli, who runs JoeSentMe.com, a Web site for business travelers. More time for carts in the aisle makes it more difficult to walk to the bathroom or stretch your legs, Brancatelli said.

"For the frequent business traveler, it has become endless annoyance after annoyance," he said. "The entire concept of Ted is an annoyance because there's no first class."

A common complaint about Ted is that it replaced mainline United flights into many markets. For example, the only way to get from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport to Las Vegas on United is to fly Ted. Ted also is the only way to get from Chicago's Midway Airport to Denver.

An in-flight store is not the kind of innovation United needs, Brancatelli said: "Just what [United Chief Executive Officer] Glenn Tilton wants to be remember for, being a low-end retailer."

Brancatelli also chides the carrier for lacking imagination.

"They keep claiming that Ted is fun," he said. "Fun is not a pack of playing cards. It's an MP3 player or the hot book of the month."

Mark Skertic writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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