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Airline pretzels no longer free on Continental

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Stephan Savoia/AP/File

(Read caption) In this Jan. 20, 2011 photo, a Continental jet takes off at Boston's Logan International Airport. Continental announced this week it would no longer serve free airline pretzels and cookies.

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It’s been decades since airline travel was fun, but the downward spiral seems to have speeded up lately.

First, airlines started charging for checked bags. Then, the federal government expanded the use of those intrusive all-body scanners. This week, Continental Airlines eliminated the free pretzels and cookies it used to hand out on flights.

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No more pretzels? Really? Is that the secret to running a successful 21st century airline?

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With the average price of a domestic ticket somewhere north of $340, doing away with a dime’s worth of twisty munchables per customer is not going to make Continental an economic powerhouse. The airline estimates the move could save it only about $2.5 million a year. It says it’s making the move to bring itself in line with its merger partner, United, which doesn’t serve free snacks either.

You can call this the logic of the market. In three decades, as consumers repeatedly rewarded low fares over service, Continental has moved from an airline that prided itself on serving complimentary meals on real plates with metal flatware to serving no free food at all. (Beverages are still free.)

But a funny thing happened on the way to that free market in the sky. The airlines still serving free food are low-cost upstarts like Air Tran and Southwest. Of the old-line so-called legacy airlines, only Delta still offers free snacks.

Apparently, these companies haven’t forgotten that taking care of customers is still important in a low-fare world.