Delta Air Lines has announced that as of March 16, flight attendants will be equipped to accept contactless payments for in-flight purchases such as earbuds and food. Customers will be able to use their mobile devices or credit cards enabled with tap-to-pay features, reducing touch points and speeding up transactions.
That convenient change in the air follows similar developments at cash registers on the ground, but as we pause to note the increased obsolescence of the old-fashioned credit card swipe, let us not forget: If you only have cash on a plane, you're still out of luck. Delta first went cashless nearly a decade ago, in 2012.
I don't know who needs to hear this—apparently the airlines do—but not everyone has a credit card.
Good credit remains a privilege of those who are wealthy enough or well-positioned enough to qualify. In its most recent biannual report in 2019, the U.S. government's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that only 170 million Americans carry credit cards, out of a national population of more than 328 million. In November 2020, the Motley Fool calculated a slightly higher proportion of those with cards, reporting that around 30% of Americans don't own a credit card.
And for the people who do have one, the economic mayhem wrought by the pandemic has made credit cards harder to manage. According to CNBC, up to 40% of Americans can't afford to send more than the minimum payment each month.
In the precise moment Delta decided to go all in on contactless transactions, a significant chunk of Americans are still locked out of the credit card market. Worse, many of those who do possess cards have been hurtling headlong into a personal debt crisis.
Is this really the time to double down on the forced use of credit cards aboard planes?
Cashless transactions disproportionately impact people of color. As a Los Angeles Times opinion piece noted last June, the Covid-19 pandemic swiftly pushed countless businesses to cashless systems, but "the price tag is racism."
Wrote columnist Erika D. Smith, "Consider that about 6.5%—or 8.4 million—American households don’t have a checking or a savings account with a bank, according to a survey from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The vast majority of them are Black or Latino."
When you hire a car, the rental company uses your credit line to guarantee the return of the vehicle. But owning a credit card is hardly a prerequisite to sit in a seat and fly, so not every passenger has one.
What's more, many passengers fly using tickets that were purchased for them by others, or travel on redeemed or gifted points. It's not accurate to assume that everyone who has a reservation for an airline seat also has a credit card.
Delta isn't the only airline to celebrate credit but frown on cash. A majority of major carriers now do the same. JetBlue made a deal with Apple Pay back in 2015—years before handling dirty money became a pressing health concern—to push customers toward plastic.
Most major airlines already made baggage fee payments cashless, too, followed by transactions in aircraft cabins and even entire airport terminals. If that never presented a hardship for you, you're one of the lucky ones. For many others, the restriction prevents them from availing themselves of full services.
JetBlue, for example, officially recommends that cash-only passengers prepare for flights by searching the airport terminal for one of its ReadySTATION kiosks, which convert cash into temporary debit cards that will be accepted on board. But that service costs $5, which puts a tax on customers who can't afford credit. It's a poverty fee.
At one of Delta's many "cashless airports," the system similarly penalizes financially insecure people by hitting them with a gateway fee. The airline's website advises that "customers without an accepted form of payment may elect to purchase a Visa gift pre-paid credit payment card from a kiosk provided by a third-party vendor for a nominal fee."
Venues are going cashless worldwide. That's not intrinsically a bad thing. And it's all very nice for people who can afford it.
But it's not realistic for everyone.
Even lots of small mom-and-pop takeout restaurants are going cashless, but they will still often place a cash tip jar beside the credit card terminal because the fact remains that cash is a dominant payment mode for people in service jobs.
We want the airlines to be on the cutting edge of payment system technology, especially as long as hygiene remains a life-and-death concern. But airlines also serve as a public transportation network, and as such, they must take pains to be accessible to all of us. I don't think payment innovations have to happen at the expense of people who still primarily use legal tender.
And while the shift to cashless travel has been afoot for years, conditions on the ground have worsened. In 2020 the pandemic shoved many more of us into financial insecurity. The blind spot inhabited by card-carrying travelers has the potential to become an elitist exclusion.
We're heading into rough economic waters, airlines. Let's make sure we don't leave anyone behind.