So Northwest Airlines has dumped the pretzels and American Airlines has ditched the pillows, at least for most coach-class customers.
And financially troubled Independence Air? What has it been doing to pinch pennies during one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. aviation history?
How about turning off the air conditioning whenever the cabin seems comfy enough without it?
"What we tell our flight crews is: 'It's your discretion. If you feel like the folks in there are feeling pretty comfortable and they're not reaching for the little fan knobs above their heads, there's no need burn excess fuel,' " said William E. Brown, senior vice president of maintenance and operations for Flyi Inc., which owns the Dulles-based airline.
The cost-cutting tactics don't stop there for Independence Air, which tomorrow celebrates its first anniversary as a low-cost airline. But Flyi acknowledges its costs are not nearly low enough: The company lost $265 million in its first nine months of operation, and there are no signs of profitability in sight, even though it has cut about 1,000 of its 4,700 employees.
Flyi seems to be looking under every seat cushion for ways to save money. It is loading up on cheaper fuel wherever it can, praising employees who root through the trash to boost the bottom line and even using the old-fashioned U.S. mail instead of costlier overnight services.
"Sending a letter by U.S. mail costs $0.37," the airline noted in its employee newsletter, the Flyi Daily Briefing.
Flyi said it still uses the courier DHL but had severed contracts with FedEx and UPS because their rates are not competitive. In April, the airline instructed its employees to "remove and destroy the UPS and FedEx shipping supplies. . . . Take them physically out of the building and put them in the dumpster, since that is the only way to ensure that they will not accidentally be used."
Like many airline companies, Flyi has been struggling to stay aloft, largely because fuel costs have been soaring and competition has been furious, driving down fares and, in turn, profit.
The outlook for the airline industry isn't pretty, most Wall Street analysts agree: US Airways and United Airlines are operating under bankruptcy protection, and Independence, Delta and Northwest may soon be joining them, some analysts predict.
Brown, the executive vice president, said airlines have a history of wastefulness. Flyi was wasteful, he said, when it operated from 1989 to 2004 as a feeder carrier, known as Atlantic Coast Airlines, for larger airlines, including United.
Since the big carriers bought the fuel used by Atlantic Coast's commuter jets, "we weren't that concerned about waste," a recent Flyi employee newsletter said. "But when we learned that we'd soon be on our own as Independence Air, it became critically important that we operate efficiently."
Some of the steps Flyi has taken are secret, recommended by a consultant, Mercer Inc. Brown disclosed one recommendation, however: saving $20 million by outsourcing some maintenance jobs.
Many of the cost-cutting measures are outlined in Flyi's internal employee newsletters. In one recent edition, the airline urged pilots to slow down their planes if they are running ahead of schedule.
"Pilots are encouraged to request shortcuts and higher altitudes to conserve fuel, and should also consider slowing down if an on-time arrival is still attainable," the company wrote.
Turning off its aircrafts' auxiliary power units (APUs), which run the air conditioning, saved Flyi $480,000 in April alone, one newsletter said.
On a recent 90-degree day, Brown said: "Obviously, on a day like today we are burning the APU. It is really hot in that cabin. We're going to use the APU all day today. It would be incredibly uncomfortable on our customers.
"But in the evening -- say you are in Greensboro [N.C.], where the humidity may be a little bit lower today -- we would do that. We leave that up to the captain and the in-flight crew to say: 'Hey, what do you think the right thing to do is here?' "
This spring, Flyi cracked down on employees who may have claimed ineligible dependents for health insurance coverage, suggesting they might face disciplinary action if they did not report the inaccuracies.
Some of the cost-cutting strategies are familiar to other airlines. Flyi, for example, has renegotiated contracts with vendors.
"Everything from the soda we buy to marketing-related contracts," Eric I. Nordling, the airline's senior vice president of marketing, said yesterday. "Everybody we do business with, we've talked about saving money. No one goes unscathed."
Flyi often uses one engine, instead of two, to taxi out to the runway -- a procedure that requires approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, Brown said. "If I know I've got a 10-minute taxi . . . I'm going to save some fuel," he said.
And like many other airlines, Flyi tops off fuel tanks at airports, such as Dulles, that sell lower-priced fuel. In an April 28 newsletter, Flyi said it had saved more than $240,000 in the previous 10 weeks by carrying extra fuel to 10 cities.
Flyi did not have to yank pillows from its cabins because it never offered them to begin with. In a strategy to generate more revenue, the airline plans to begin selling blankets and neck-cushion pillows on its flights.
"They're not . . . the pillows and blankets that people traditionally see on an airplane," Nordling said. Rather, they are items "you would buy at the fancy store in the mall, Brookstone."
And, in an attempt to create a culture of cost-consciousness, Flyi regularly praises employees who seem to know the value of a dollar.
One newsletter trumpeted the work of two maintenance employees who "went to great lengths to retrieve some items from the dumpster that were carelessly thrown away," wrote Flyi's vice president of maintenance, Lillian Dukes. The newsletter showed a photo of a maintenance supervisor reaching into a large trash bin.
"It appears that not every one is conscious of how urgent it is for us to control our costs," Dukes wrote. "The total amount saved from this fishing expedition? $246!"
Nordling, in the interview yesterday, said he didn't know exactly what they fished out, and he declined to find out.
"I'm not going to waste my time on that," he said. "It's a trivial little thing."
Trivial? Not to maintenance chief Dukes.
"Thanks, guys, lunch is on me," she wrote in the newsletter, referring to the two dumpster-fishing employees. "You name the day. Way to go."