Image: Airline pilots
Rolf Vennenbernd  /  EPA file
Planes nearly fly themselves these days. Why not remove the pilots to cut weight, columnist Christopher Elliott (half) jokingly writes.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist contributor
updated 9/22/2008 9:50:16 AM ET 2008-09-22T13:50:16

Meals. Pillows. Blankets. And now, life vests.

Is there anything the airlines haven’t tried to remove from their planes? As a matter of fact, yes.

Airlines are true experts at taking. They started getting serious nearly three years ago, when American Airlines removed its galleys on some planes in order to cram in a few extra seats. Air Canada’s jettisoning of its life vests on its regional carrier, Jazz, in order to save fuel, is just the latest move in a concerted airline industry effort to strip aircraft of everything but the seats.

But they’re not done. Far from it.

Ditching in-flight entertainment systems, magazine racks, potable water — it’s all either being done or will be done.

Don’t believe me? Check out the section on fuel conservation in this presentation (PDF) from the Air Transport Association, the airline trade group. Really, they’ll stop at almost nothing to lighten their planes.

But maybe they’re looking in the wrong place. Here are seven things they should lose from their flights — but probably won’t.

Federal air marshals
Airlines must carry as many air marshals as the TSA tells them — for free. Yet the program is a failure, at least by some measures. A recent study of the Federal Air Marshal Service suggests that it spends $180 million per life saved. “As such, the air marshal program would seem to fail a cost-benefit analysis,” it concludes. Besides, pilots are now packing heat. Isn’t it time to think about grounding the marshals?

Duty-free carts
“They’re totally useless,” says Ed Kummel, an engineer from Sterling, Va. “If the airlines really want to conserve fuel, dump them.” Well, maybe not totally useless — they make airlines a tidy profit, according to one study. But in the sense that they weigh half a ton and are more of an inconvenience to passengers than an amenity, yes — ditch ’em.

In-flight magazines
No offense to my colleagues who work for these publications, but the heavy product they churn out has no place on an aircraft at a time like this. Some airlines are trying to put these magazines on a diet, but why not just get rid of them entirely? I know you’ll miss all those stories about Las Vegas, the unfunny humor columns and the ads for dating services. I certainly will. But think of all the fuel the airline will save.

Flight attendants
Federal rules require a minimum number of flight attendants for every plane — for example, an aircraft with up to 50 seats has to have one attendant, and between 51 and 101 seats, it must have two. On my last flight on a 137-seat plane I counted four flight attendants. Come on. How much money could an airline save by eliminating a crewmember? I mean, they’ve stopped serving food and now we have to pay for drinks. Why not install a vending machine at the back of the plane?

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Not all of them. But considering that on most flights I’ve been on lately, at least one of the restrooms was out of order, I have an idea: Why not just uninstall that nonworking loo? Passengers will wait in the same long line as before. They’ll never miss it. As a matter of fact, there are no rules that say an airline must fly with a certain number of restrooms. There’s no federally mandated passenger-to-toilet ratio, and some smaller aircraft aren’t even required to have a bathroom.

XL passengers
Most airlines look the other way when an oversize passengers boards (though not all — Southwest makes “customers of size” buy an extra seat). If the airlines don’t start charging by weight — which, though disturbing on some levels, is a logical next step — then why not send these big passengers packing? Now before you flame me for being insensitive, let me confess that I am one of these XL passengers. I’m taller than average and I have long arms that tend to sprawl. But airlines already force our carry-on luggage to fit into a template. Why not us, too?

I’m only half kidding. But still, it’s worth noting that today’s planes practically fly themselves, or can be piloted remotely as this British test showed. Pilots take up extra space and weigh the plane down. Do we really need them onboard?

I’m not trying to be funny. At some point — probably soon — the airlines will have stripped their planes of so many amenities that it will be a stretch to call it flying, or jetting, or whatever the term du jour is. It will just be a prison sentence.

Where do the cuts end? They end when passengers say “enough” as they recently did when United tried to cut meal service on its international flights. The airline backed down, much to its credit.

It’s not up to the airlines to ask themselves, “How much can we take away and still call it an airline?” They’ve already answered that question, and the sky’s the limit.

No, it’s up to us to tell them.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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