European Airlines Gamble to Win over More Passengers

As frequent fliers know, copy-catting is routine in the airline industry.

But I don't know if I should be proud or perturbed to see real carriers imitating my imaginary Shattuck Airlines - the upstart that established new flight patterns in soliciting onboard revenue.

So you thought my suggestion for bingo games at 35,000 feet was tongue-in-cheek?

Well, so did I.

But now comes word that several low-fare European airlines, including Ryanair, Flybe and Myair, are selling scratch cards for prizes. A Belgian won an automobile after investing 2 British pounds (about $4 U.S.) during a Ryanair flight between Rome and Brussels.

In a separate promotion this fall, Ryanair, an innovative carrier based in the United Kingdom, conducted contests for passengers who purchased beverages on board. They competed for a free round-trip flight, with the winner announced prior to landing.

But that was only a beginning: Last month, Ryanair - whose passenger volume has increased from 3 million to 42 million in the past decade - announced a partnership with Jacketpotjoy, the U.K.'s largest online bingo operator.

For now, gaming is available only at , with prizes ranging from free flights to payoffs as high as 200,000 pounds (U.S. citizens are ineligible to play). But plans are to introduce in-flight bingo during 2007, and Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary has speculated publicly that pilots may call out the numbers. Not during turbulence, I trust.

This is just one illustration of airlines' striving to find revenue sources beyond the price of a ticket.

Ryanair also has introduced custom-made tray tables designed to accommodate printed advertisements. Other ad venues on foreign carriers range from overhead bins to flight attendant uniforms. In Germany this fall I saw planes whose fuselages served as flying billboards.

Some airlines charge for blankets, and Travel Weekly, an industry newspaper, recently cited one unnamed Asian carrier whose flight attendants - inspired by commissions - reportedly asked pilots to lower thermostats when blanket sales were slow.

The topic is so hot that delegates to the World Low Cost Carriers Congress - I love that moniker - gathered this fall in London to discuss new ways to make money.

"You've got your customers trapped in your shop for two hours at least; now what are you going to sell them?" Travel Weekly quoted Dave Sampson, the workshop director, as challenging participants.

Not that airlines are limited to on-board pitches. Visit Flybe's Web site (), shade your eyes from the vivid red, purple, yellow, blue and green background and learn how to reserve seats in advance (about $16, or $32 for bulkhead seats), pre-check baggage ($6 per suitcase), buy flowers, arrange tee times for golf or book holiday villas in Spain.

Paying to check bags and confirm seats is becoming commonplace in Europe, where an epidemic of regional carriers has led to strong competition and low fares, highlighting the importance of ancillary revenue. Speculation is that ticket purchases may soon represent less than half of some airlines' profits. Ryanair's O'Leary is on record as saying his goal is to make enough money from on-board gambling and other means that all tickets eventually will be free.

Will that happen here? It's unlikely. But major U.S. carriers aren't shy about making sales pitches for hotels, car rentals, tour packages, restaurants, florists, credit cards and countless other products and services. Most now aggressively market upgrades, food and day passes to lounges.

U.S. airlines' Web sites are increasingly multifunctional - at , for example, you can purchase foreign currency or entertainment coupons - but they're not as blatant as Ryanair and Flybe. Selling tickets clearly remains the No. 1 objective.

But U.S. airlines no doubt are closely following developments in Europe and around the world.

Did anyone yell bingo?

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