Like many people, I started flying again after taking a pandemic-induced hiatus for much of 2020 and 2021. I recently flew on United Airlines and was shocked to learn that they no no longer accept credit or debit cards on board.
They don’t take money either, but that’s not particularly surprising. Germ concerns — and other considerations like speed, convenience, loss, theft, and even a national coin shortage — are driving many businesses to push their customers to use mobile cards and payments. Most major stadiums, for example, have gone cashless.
But United takes the concept to the next level by refusing to accept cards or mobile payments for onboard purchases such as drinks and snacks. The only way to purchase these items on most United flights is to pre-load a credit or debit card to your account. There is also a trial program involving a PayPal QR code on select United flights.
When I checked in for my flight online, I noticed a disclaimer regarding this policy which encouraged me to pre-load a card. But the issue didn’t fully grip me until I saw a customer turn down my flight from Newark to Phoenix because she hadn’t pre-loaded a card. In fact, I didn’t see anyone buying anything as the flight attendants walked down the aisle. I suspect the preload policy had a chilling effect.
What other airlines are doing
My flight home was on American Airlines and they had nothing available for purchase, card or no card. Unlike many of its rivals, American has not resumed alcoholic beverage sales or paid snack/meal services on domestic flights in the main cabin.
I’ve taken a few JetBlue flights recently, and their inflight services and payment methods were just as I remembered them before the pandemic. On a flight in March, my family bought a few boxes of snacks and we paid with a credit card that the flight attendant inserted into a portable reader.
I haven’t flown with Delta for a while, but I’ve read that they only accept contactless payments on board. It doesn’t bother me too much. It’s not as big as United’s decision to stop accepting physical cards on their planes.
Who uses money anyway?
About five percent of Americans are unbanked, according to the FDIC, but it is probably not a population that performs many flights; it is also very unusual to buy a plane ticket with cash. If you don’t have a credit or debit card, you’ve probably already had to develop a workaround to purchase your ticket. A popular alternative is to load money onto a prepaid debit card. In fact, I’ve seen a reverse ATM at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport that does just that, although the $6 transaction fee would sting.
Still, most Americans have at least one credit or debit card, and almost everyone should have access to a contactless payment method. This can involve tapping the card itself or using it through a mobile payment service like Apple Pay or Google Pay.
Some people like the privacy and anonymity of money. And many older Americans still prefer cash for these reasons and others (as usual). But cash accounted for just 19% of transactions measured by the latest report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Consumer Payment Choice Log.
United’s ban on cash and cards is unusual
United’s decision to forgo not only cash payments but also physical credit and debit cards still shocks me. It actually dates back to March 2020 but I didn’t notice since I haven’t flown with United for a while. I think they should at least accept contactless payments. Touching cards (or money for that matter) seems like a minor concern anyway.
“The primary mode by which people become infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is through exposure to respiratory droplets carrying infectious virus,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It is possible for people to become infected through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects (fomites), but the risk is generally considered to be low.”
This seems hypocritical to me since United and other airlines are constantly touting air safety on their planes. As their website states: “The latest research shows that aircraft cabins are among the safest public indoor environments. A recent study conducted by the United States Department of Defense (DOD) supports the conclusion that the risk of exposure to COVID-19 on board our aircraft is almost nil thanks to advanced air filtration systems, at the port of mask required and diligent cleaning protocols.
Note that the mask mandate is no longer in effect.
Basically the CDC says COVID-19 is mostly spread through the air, but United says their air is safe but dare not try to pay with physical card or cash because register a payment method in advance” do[s] your trip safer and more enjoyable. Pretty squishy logic, if you ask me.
It’s also interesting because the airline industry is full of imitators, but at the moment airlines have very different approaches to refreshments and onboard payments. I have to think United loses a lot of revenue by making it difficult for passengers to buy food and drink on flights. And American must be hit even harder by not even offering items for sale on many flights.
The bottom line
This is another example of how the “new normal” is not what you experienced before COVID. Summer travel is expected to increase this year, although it will be different in many ways.
I noticed some of these changes on my recent trip, including a host of closed airport restaurants and others with limited menus and staff. I experienced two of the longest security lines in my travel history in Newark and Orlando, but went through the checkpoint in Phoenix.
American Express popularized the slogan “Don’t leave without it”. If you’re traveling with United, don’t leave home without saving a credit or debit card number to your account.
Have a question about credit cards? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’d be happy to help.