Are the days of inflight duty-free numbered?

Oneworld airline Finnair is the latest to announce the retirement of duty-free trolleys.

By Bloomberg News, February 2 2023
Are the days of inflight duty-free numbered?

Finnair will stop selling Marimekko amenity kits, Iittala whiskey tumblers and other popular Finnish products on board its aircraft by the end of February, joining a growing list of airlines – including Qantas, United Airlines and KLM – to dump the once-popular inflight service.

The appeal of duty-free at 40,000 feet has been dented and in decline over the years due to improved duty-free retail outlets at airports, as well as the greater availability of goods and greater price competition through online shopping.

Bidding farewell to perfumes and souvenirs has a financial benefit to airlines as well. Removing those laden carts and other stocks of duty-free goods – much of which will remain unsold at the end of the flight – reduces the overall weight of the aircraft at a time when carriers are seeking to reduce their fuel bills.

Inflight sales on Finnair will end February 28, although passengers can still pre-order goods that will be delivered until April 18, the airline revealed in a statement.

As part of the phase-out, the Oneworld member is offering a 40% closing-down sale on some items until the service ends. Finnair will continue to sell food and beverage on board, it said. 

The carrier has seen its business model come under pressure in the past year after the closing down of Russian airspace in the wake of the Ukraine war added extra hours and fuel cost to its popular Asian routes. 

Cathay Pacific has paused inflight duty-free sales but says the service will return this year.
Cathay Pacific has paused inflight duty-free sales but says the service will return this year.

Inflight sales are a legacy of the glory days of flying when airlines offered significant discounts on alcohol, cigarettes, perfume and other items.

While several airlines wound back duty-free sales during the pandemic, some exited the market much earlier. Delta Air Lines and American Airlines shut down their duty free in 2014 and 2015, respectively, while Qantas and United both ended theirs in 2017, with KLM following in January 2020.

Cathay Pacific, which put its own duty-free service on pause during the pandemic, intends to resume inflight duty-free shopping this year, a spokesperson for the airline tells Executive Traveller.

Additional reporting by David Flynn

This article is published under license from Bloomberg Media: the original article can be viewed here


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

14 Sep 2012

Total posts 379

The reason big western airlines are ditching their duty free is because their selection was crap from the beginning, largely trinkets and awful souvenirs. Big Asian airlines like SQ, CX have great duty free, well worth browsing through the catalogue and marking a purchase every now and again, even at slightly inflated prices. 


09 May 2020

Total posts 566

Agreed, and the crew barely mention “duty-free products are available for purchase” nowadays, with the service manager rarely even bother to do a walk-through reminding pax that duty free is available (and post COVID, not even that nowadays) much less pushing a cart. 

I remember once I sat next to someone who want something very basic and common (think it was a writing set or something as momento) and after a bit of thru-n-fro, the customer service managers sheepishly apologised for not having any in stock…. I don’t think there is anyone else in the plane was buying up all that trinkets on the menu.

Etihad - Etihad Guest

21 Jul 2019

Total posts 166

This is one inflight service which I think has passed its usefulness; and I think will not be missed by the majority of pax. I had to think long and hard about the last time I bought something off the was the 90s(!)

BA Gold

01 Apr 2012

Total posts 191

It really depends on the duty free models that airlines use and the routes they fly.

I used to be crew for BA and there were a lot of routes we'd fly where we would sell virtually nothing but other routes where the passengers would deplete the entire stock (Nigeria routes for example).  

I know for a fact, 'inflight retail' was the ONLY part of BA to actually make a profit in the year following 9/11.

Some airlines keep their Duty Free in-house, ie they buy the stock and make the  profit (or loss).  Others, outsource it.  A duty free supplier will 'rent' the space from an airline on their aircraft and supply the stock and make the profit.

I think a big factor in many airlines ditching the system is also dodgy payments.  Obviously, we had no 'live' credit card authorisation mechanism at 37000ft and so many c£500 'sales' were made by what turned out to be fake or cancelled cards.

Having flashbacks reading this article. 15 years ago QF, LHR to SYD via HK and we bought 3 small bottles of Moët, through the onboard duty free on the first leg of the flight. Trying to re board the plane in Hong Kong security wouldn’t let us through with our liquid purchase. After pleading our case and failing and seeking assistance from the QF staff on hand (and failing) we sat at the departure lounge drinking our room temperature Moët  from the cardboard coffee cups we procured from the nearby Starbucks. 

The one and only time we’ve purchased anything from inflight duty free and happy to say the only time we’ve drunk room temperature Moët. 

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