The little amenity bags given to premium-class travelers hold an oversize importance to the airlines: They not only reflect the airline's brand, but also demonstrate the carriers' high regard for top customers.
Soon, some airlines may even turn the amenity kit into a revenue source by selling them to economy-class passengers.
"The airlines are very interested in co-branding and revenue sharing," said Anita Gittelson, the executive vice president for product development at Wessco, who is considered the godmother of the modern-day amenity kit.
She said she was working with several airlines to offer kits for sale, though no airline said it had immediate plans to do so.
"We're trying to look for ways to give coach class an opportunity to purchase for very little money what business and first class gets for free," Ms. Gittelson said. "Revenue generation and airlines are like two magic words. They need the money."
In the early days of air travel, passengers received tubes of generic toothpaste, vials of perfume, and emery boards -- all in miniature sizes. These kits, dating to the 1950s, are now collectible, sold on eBay and other sites.
"Pan Am and TWA were pioneers when it came to in-flight service," said Steven Lott, a collector and executive with the Air Transport Association, the airline industry trade group.
Still, those bags, heavy and rigid, bear little resemblance to the ones handed out today, said Jennifer Coutts Clay, author of the book Jetliner Cabins (Academy Press, 2004). There's been a transition, she said, to "synthetic fabrics, eco-fabrics like bamboo tied up with raffia, and now we see airlines providing handy, useful items, not just items that display the airline's own logo."
Drugstore brand items started appearing in amenity bags in the mid-1980s, but the most transforming change may have occurred in 2000, when Ms. Gittelson persuaded Delta Air Lines to take a chance on Essentiel Elements, an aromatherapy company in California that at the time was little-known. After the Delta kits, sales increased.
"It was a new revenue stream for Delta," said Laura Peck Fennema, who founded Essentiel Elements, "and it had a very positive impact on our business." She sold the company to Gilchrist & Soames in 2002.
These days, more airlines are doing partnerships. Still, while some carriers seek to recoup some of the costs of the kits, other airlines insist the bag is a gift and not a vehicle to sell products.
Creating a bag that makes an impression takes more than a trip to the drugstore for toothpaste and a zipper pouch, which is why Ms. Gittelson said she looked for little-known boutique products and acted as an arbiter of quality and taste for airlines. She says her job is to know what products will make a passenger feel special as well as effectively plug ears, shade eyes, moisturize skin, and eliminate morning breath.
"It has become an art form of sorts," Ms. Gittelson said. "Airlines today will ask their interior designers to work on their kits."
Part of the challenge is making a bag that is stylish while dealing with the many considerations of working in an environment where weight, size, and cost are critical.
"It's always a balancing act between function and design," said Michael Bierut, a partner in the New York office of the international design consultant Pentagram, which designed the amenity kits, cabin interiors, and corporate logo for United Airlines.