By Nicole Neroulias
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Alaska Airlines, America's seventh-largest carrier in terms of passenger traffic, said on Wednesday that it would end a decades-old tradition of handing out prayer cards with its in-flight meals.
The prayer cards, which the Seattle-based airline began offering in the 1970s after an executive spotted them on another airline, were intended to serve as a marketing strategy and to put passengers at ease, a spokeswoman said.
The airline sent an e-mail to its frequent flyers on Wednesday explaining the change, which takes effect February 1.
"This difficult decision was not made lightly. We believe it's the right thing to do in order to respect the diverse religious beliefs and cultural attitudes of all our customers and employees," Alaska Air Group Chairman and CEO Bill Ayer and Alaska Airlines President Brad Tilden wrote to customers.
"Religious beliefs are deeply personal and sharing them with others is an individual choice."
The quotes came from the Book of Psalms, part of both Jewish and Christian tradition, such as Psalm 118, "Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His love endures forever."
The airline has offered meals only on flights longer than four hours and, since 2006, only to first-class passengers - up to 16 people per flight. The airline carries 16.5 million passengers per year.
The decision prompted dozens of comments on the airline's Facebook page, mostly from people expressing disappointment with the change.
Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said the company's leaders made the decision last fall, after several years of reviewing the rise in customer complaints.
"The idea of removing the card had come up several times over the past few years and prompted thoughtful discussion," she said. "When the issue came up again last fall, after carefully considering all sides, it was agreed that eliminating the card was simply the right thing to do."
Egan could not say whether the rise in complaints was related to limiting the distribution of the cards to first-class passengers.
"Over the years, we've received comments from customers who were comforted by the card, but many others felt as though religion was not appropriate on an airplane and preferred not to receive one," she said.
"We've seen an uptick in the number of passengers who just simply don't appreciate getting a prayer card on the meal tray."
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Johnston)