Innovations and Payment Systems

Many airlines now accepting plastic for in-flight purchases


Weary travelers, take heart. On most airlines, you are now free to pay for your in-flight Heineken or Harry Potter movie with your credit card.

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Weary travelers, take heart. On most airlines, you are now free to pay for your in-flight Heineken or Harry Potter movie with your credit card.

Many airlines that, for decades, accepted only cash for onboard purchases recently have begun to accept credit cards. Some are even going one step further and refusing to accept cash at all. Given that some airlines now charge passengers for soft drinks and even water, many who rely on credit cards welcome the news.

“It removes the burden of remembering to withdraw cash for the trip,” says Robb Walters of Seattle, a frequent flier who rarely carries cash. “I also receive miles for the transaction on my credit card.” In addition, paying with plastic allows him and other business travelers to track and record their expenses for reimbursement and tax purposes more easily.

Linsey B. Kner, a leisure traveler from Tekamah, Neb., cheered the move because she doesn’t like to carry cash when she travels due to the perceived threat of crimes like pickpocketing in unfamiliar, tourist-heavy areas. “It’s lessened my dependency on cash, which is always a bit scary to carry,” she said. She also said she was impressed with the speed of her credit card transaction on her recent Frontier Airlines flight out of Omaha, Neb.

Who takes what for in-flight purchases
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debit cards
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American AirlinesXX
Unitedin test phaseX
Virgin AmericaX

A boon for the airlines
In-flight credit-card acceptance is also good news for the airlines, according to Peter Nicas, CEO and founder of, an online travel and trip planning resource. “Accepting only credit cards takes away the burden of managing large amounts of cash,” he says. “In addition, handheld wireless credit card machines typically take less time to run than cash transactions.”

Ramona Arellano-Snyder is a 15-year veteran flight attendant with American Airlines, and when credit card terminals were first introduced onboard, she resisted. “Not only was it one more thing I had to do, but I had to learn how to use the credit card machine and print receipts, which took up time in the aisle,” she said, adding that occasionally the machine would stop working in midflight.

Today she’s a convert. “I don’t have to ask passengers for change when somebody hands me a $20 bill,” she said, noting that with drinks priced at $6 each, exact change is a challenge for both passengers and attendants.

There’s another benefit for the airlines: Accepting credit cards onboard probably generates more revenue, since people tend to spend more when they use a credit card no matter where they are. Indeed, Walters said he spends more freely on meals, videos and cocktails duing flights specifically because they take credit cards.

But Liz Mendel, president of Dolphin Travel, a full-service travel agency in Oakland Park, Florida, thinks there’s another reason why credit card acceptance is on the rise in the skies. It’s called “shrinkage,” and it happens when, for example, a flight attendant takes $6 in cash for a glass of red wine, puts $5 in the cash drawer and then puts $1 in his or her pocket. “It makes sense for the airlines because the ‘shrinkage’ that can take place when cash is handled will be minimized,” she said.

The downside
Still, the change brings challenges.

For one, Dolphin Travel’s Mendel says, “It’s possible the airlines will end up paying more in transaction fees to the credit card companies than they might save in shrinkage.”

In addition, people who don’t have credit cards are at a disadvantage on card-only flights, as are minors who are traveling by themselves who don’t have a parent’s card.

And unless the flight attendants use handheld terminals while standing by your seat, there’s always the chance your card could disappear. On a recent flight to Miami, Melle Hock of New York City gave her debit card to the flight attendant to pay for a drink. She got the Bloody Mary but didn’t realize she never got her card back until she tried to check into her hotel and couldn’t find it. Her bank called soon after to tell her that someone was trying to use it to buy $500 worth of goods at a local Home Depot.

But overall, most travelers welcome credit card-only flights, especially younger travelers. “For people my age, it isn’t a big deal,” says 27-year-old Justin Paquette of Annapolis, Md. “I never carry cash anyway and don’t know too many people my age who do.” He thinks resistance will mostly come from older travelers and people who are wary of using credit cards online.

Still, despite some trepidation, the change is likely here to say, meaning that in the near future, you’ll be much less likely to hear “Please contact your flight attendant if you have change for a $20.”


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