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A LITTLE SWAG GOES A LONG WAY
By Joe Brancatelli
March 6, 2013 --When first-class passengers reach their seats on an international American Airlines flight, they no longer find a brick-sized amenity kit waiting for them. But it's not as if bankrupt-and-soon-to-be-merged American has eliminated complimentary toiletries as a cost-cutting measure.

What American's international fliers find instead is a monochromatic, padded case decorated with a discreet American Airlines logo and a stylized interpretation of the famed Charles Eames "dot pattern." The 8x10-inch portfolio has a range of typical airline freebies inside. But there's also a small, black cloth to clean eyeglasses, a smartphone monitor or the display of a tablet computer.

The cloth is the big tip off. American's new case is specifically sized and specially designed to double as an iPad case. After passengers use or dispose of the socks, toothpaste and toothbrush, eyeshade, earplugs, tissues, moist towelette, lip balm and Dermalogica lotions, the portfolio is a savvy high-tech leave behind. Every time they unzip the case and remove or replace their iPad, they think of American Airlines.

"The amount of feedback we've gotten so far has been amazing," says Chris Isaac, American's director of inflight dining and retail. "There's something very different and unique about the kit. There's demand for the case because so many fliers travel" with a tablet.

American has offered the iPad-sized toiletries case since the beginning of the year, but it isn't alone in rethinking the amenity bag. Over at Delta Air Lines, (NYSE: DAL) the new kit for international business-class passengers channels a famed luggage maker.

Introduced last month, Delta's traditionally sized amenities case is created in partnership with Tumi. It uses the same black ballistic nylon and carries the same black-and-red Tumi logo tab. Tumi has even branded the black eye shade inside while Delta turned to Malin + Goetz, an upscale New York "apothecary," for the lotions and potions.

"Tumi is an iconic brand," explains Peter Wilander, Delta's managing director of on-board services. "The new case is flying off the planes. It's sort of a gift with purchase when you fly with us."

With the airline business relatively stable and momentarily (if thinly) profitable, the carriers can fiddle with frills like the amenity kit they offer to their big-ticket customers in premium classes. But like so much of the airline industry, the logic of the amenity kits is more art than science, more voodoo than research.

When I asked one of my go-to sources, the top U.S. executive at an international airline, about the kit he distributed to his business-class customers, he admitted that he had no idea. A few days later, however, he called back, bursting with information he'd gleaned from talking to several of his friends who run competitive carriers.

"The stuff is all over the map," he said. "An amenity kit can cost an airline anywhere from $4 to $30 a unit. No one agrees whether it's great for brand identity or it's something that we're afraid to get rid of because we've always done it. And the logistics are a nightmare. First you have to source them, usually in China, and then palletize them for shipment to the head office. Then you have ship them in containers to the international stations. The kits have to fit on the metal carts in-flight and you have to figure out how many to carry and how to store them."

If you have flown enough international journeys in premium class, you know passengers are at least as divided as the airline industry. Some glance at the bag when they get to their seat (or are presented with them by a flight attendant) and then ignore it. Some use the products inside--the socks, eyeshades and ear plugs are most popular, suggests Delta's Wilander--and leave the rest of the contents and the case itself behind. And some are obsessive collectors, taking not only their own bag, but also scooping up any that fellow travelers have left behind.

I sheepishly admit to being in the later category. I hoard the toothpaste/toothbrush combinations to put in my own kit bag. That gives me a convenient source of one-time-use dental products when I travel. Like a lot of other fliers, I repurpose any well-designed amenity case to store the cables, cords and other gadgets I bring along with my laptop. And I organize my desk drawers with an ingenious series of commemorative amenity tins that Delta Air Lines distributed about a decade ago.

Amenity kits, which airlines swap out about once a year, also have an vigorous afterlife as regifted souvenirs, suggests Mary Kirby, who runs the magazines and blogs of the Airline Passenger Experience Association. Women's shelters gratefully accept airline amenity bags, too, since toiletries are often in short supply.

The bags are also collectibles and you can always find a cornucopia on Ebay. The current hot item: amenity-kit-sized versions of Rimowa hard-sided luggage. Sporadically distributed to premium-class passengers by Lufthansa, the German airline, and Thai Airways, the Rimowa amenity cases sell for as much as $100. The American amenity-kit-cum-iPad case commands around $50 in aftermarkets.

You should understand that most airlines don't create amenity kits alone. Most of the work is handled by third-party firms such as Formia (it did the Rimowa bag) and Wessco International. They mix-and-match cases and amenities based on carrier specifications and partnerships forged with cosmetic firms and luggage makers.

It's no trivial matter, either. The aforementioned Delta tins were packed with products from L'Occitane, then a little-known French brand. British Airways helped popularize London's Molton Brown when it chose that company's products for its first-class amenity kits in the 1990s.

After decades of non-descript offerings—I remember getting kits with Ipana and Pepsodent long after those brands had fallen out of favor with U.S. consumers—the competition is keen now. Singapore Airlines, for example, has used Bulgari, Ferragamo and Kiehl's products in the bags it distributes to first-class fliers. BA's current kits--the airline calls them "washbags"--are stuffed with top-line names. The first-class bag comes from Anya Hindmarch and is packed with products from London's D.R. Harris and Ren. Bags distributed to business-class fliers feature Elemis products.

In fact, who makes the bag and what brand names are inside sometimes overshadow the airline itself. One example: the stylish amenity kit distributed by Taiwan's EVA Air to its long-haul business class passengers.

The discreet brown case has a fabric carrying handle and a zippered top flap. There's a metal hook so the bag will hang comfortably in in-flight lavs or on-the-ground bathrooms. And except for the Colgate toothpaste, the products are from Bulgari. The round zipper fobs are branded Bulgari. The little metal nameplate (complete with a protective plastic coating) on the front of the bag says Bulgari. And save for a discreet paper band around the socks and a small logo on the inside of the case, the EVA Air name is absent.

"Though out amenity kit is branded with the Bulgari name on the outside, we believe [flyers] recognize it as a gift from EVA," explains KW Nieh, group executive officer of the Evergreen Group, EVA Air's parent company.

ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.