In a bid to spur more duty free sales last year, United Airlines created a program that allowed non-traveling customers to surprise family or friends on international flights by sending them gifts delivered by a flight attendant. United recommended consumers use the service to say, “congratulations,” “happy birthday,” or “I love you,” and promised to deliver gifts in a special bag with a personalized card.
It was an intriguing idea —United even got some media buzz from it — but it was not enough to save the airline’s duty free program.
United, which has been working with a company called Duty Free World, said this week it will stop boarding duty free items on March 31. It will be the last of the three major U.S. airline to close its shop, following Delta Air Lines, which folded its operation in 2014, and American Airlines, which shut its down in 2015. Other North American airlines, including Hawaiian Air and Air Canada, continue to sell duty free items.
Duty free still serves a purpose, mainly for airlines that invest heavily in promoting and marketing the service. Korean Air has a duty free shop in the rear of its Airbus A380 economy class section that’s so big it kept the airline from installing as many seats on the aircraft as normal. And Qatar Airways, which also takes duty free seriously, earned more than a half of billion dollars in revenue from its duty free program in 2015, according to a report from IdeaWorksCompany.