They were just 19 little pretzels in a bag smaller than any you would find in a convenience store, but coach passengers on Continental Airlines learned recently that they were 19 too many.

Last month, the airline became the latest to stop serving free pretzels. The change comes as part of Continental's merger with United Airlines, which will create the world's largest and supposedly best airline. Jeff Smisek, formerly the CEO of Continental and now the CEO of the combined airline, has said he wants to bring together the best of both carriers to offer the utmost in customer service.

Given that, one might think that since United (UAL) hasn't served free snacks for several years, it would make sense to adopt Continental's small generosity company-wide and put pretzels back on United flights too. That way, when the merger is complete later this year, and the new combined airline is called United, there would be pretzels for all.

Apparently, Smisek doesn't like pretzels.

The High Price of Munching


Its not about the taste, but about cutting costs. Continental says eliminating pretzels will save $2.5 million a year. That might sound like a big figure, but, it isn't, when you realize that the two airlines took in a total of $34 billion in revenue last year.

Of course, airlines now sell food -- some even sell pretzels. But now, passengers will pay a pretty penny for the privilege of eating them. United's snack pack, which includes pretzels, animal crackers, goldfish and other assorted snacks, will set you back $7.49. Pretzels are not available as an a la carte snack.

What's worse: Even the purchasable snacks are only available on longer flights. United only sells food on flights longer than two hours, while Continental only does so on flights of two and a half hours or longer.

Continental does offer pretzels a la carte on those flights, but they are of the white-chocolate-covered variety, and will set travelers back $3.95 a bag.

Where the Snacks Still Fly Free


Continental had been the last airline to offer free airline meals in coach domestically, but for the most part, they were eliminated in autumn 2010. After that, free food was only offer on domestic flights lasting six hours or longer, such as the Newark to Los Angeles route.

Unfortunately, those meals have also gone the way of the free pretzels.

If you're a frequent flyer, you know too well that you can't protest and switch to American Airlines (AMR) or US Airways (LCC). They've eliminated free snacks too.

But there are some options.

JetBlue
(JBLU) flight attendants come around with a basket offering a variety of free shacks including All Nuts roasted cashews, Doritos Munchies, Linden's Butter Crunch Cookies, Linden's Chocolate Chippers, PopCorners Popcorn Chip, Stouffers Animal Crackers and Terra Blues Chips.

Southwest Airlines (LUV) serves free pretzels and peanuts, and on longer flights, various Nabisco snacks such as Ritz cheese crackers. Air Tran, which is in the process of merging with Southwest, offers free pretzels.

Finally, I have saved the best for last.

Delta Airlines (DAL) offers peanuts, pretzels and Biscoff Cookies, my favorite airline snack.

The crispy, crunchy caramelized biscuits with a cinnamon aftertaste are truly amazing -- and reason enough all by themselves to fly Delta.

And, on flights after 10 a.m., Frontier Airlines (RJET) offers free chocolate chip cookies that I am been told are pretty amazing, though I have yet to experience them.

Your Tax Dollars: Protecting You From Peanuts?


Its unclear how new federal Department of Transportation regulations could affect free snacks.

Last June, the DOT announced it was considering "peanut bans" or "peanut-free zones" to accommodate individuals with severe peanut allergies.

However, while eating peanuts can certainly cause death or serious reactions to people who are severely allergic to them, the question is: Can the trace amounts of peanut traveling though the air due to people eating them nearby cause problems for a person with allergies? The DOT later clarified itself, saying it would not ban peanuts nor require peanut-free zones on planes unless it received a peer-reviewed study demonstrating that contact with small airborne peanut particles could do harm. No such study has been submitted.

Of course, for some travelers, peanuts are a healthy snack -- indeed, a preferred snack for those on gluten-free diets. And believe it or not, both Delta Airlines and Southwest Airlines have fought to keep the nuts, telling the DOT that they already provide peanut-free zones on planes when passengers have peanut allergies.

A DOT peanut policy could be contained in final passenger rights regulations scheduled to be released later this month. Let's just hope the regulators don't give Delta and Southwest a reason to eliminate one of the few remaining free snacks.



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