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TRAVEL INSIDER : On Airplanes, Movies Are Hot; Eating Is Not : Flying: Food service is cut back while high-tech entertainment and other services are expanded. Travelers find they can't have their fax and eat it, too.


With one hand the airlines give, and with the other they take away. Or so it seems, as the nation's air carriers move to make big changes in cabin services and entertainment aloft.

Have you noticed that no spoon was provided when your latest in-flight meal was served? Northwest Airlines no longer issues spoons if the day's menu doesn't require them. It's a way of saving money in these economically troubled times. Believe it or not, the absence of spoons lightens the plane's load to the extent that the airline expects to save tens of thousands of dollars annually. Northwest also bought slimmer knives, anticipating more than $100,000 additional savings in fuel costs annually.

Other airlines, too, are adopting money-saving tactics in the face of continuing financial losses. USAir no longer automatically provides a full can of soda as a complimentary in-flight beverage, a tradition it inherited from Piedmont Airlines when the two carriers merged. Now you must ask for a full can or get only a glassful. United Airlines has replaced hot meals on some shorter flights with box lunches.

In curious contrast, however, many of the same airlines are racing each other to provide the biggest and best entertainment and communications facilities in the air. On many of their 757 aircraft, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are now offering free 24-hour live news and sports broadcasts. A couple of months ago, passengers on these flights could tune into play-by-play coverage of the Super Bowl in Pasadena. In the fall, the World Series will be broadcast aloft.

What's it all mean?

Obviously, the airlines see meal service as an amenity that can be trimmed back without seriously offending most passengers.

"I'm one of those frequent travelers who decided years ago I wouldn't pay attention to meals," says Randy Petersen, publisher of Insideflyer, a monthly newsletter for business travelers.

But in-flight entertainment and phone and computer links apparently are something many travelers see as important--especially on long transoceanic flights--and no airline wants to be left behind by its competitors.

"The airlines are filling more time and providing more choices," says Bob Brookler, spokesman for World Airline Entertainment Services in Sherman Oaks, which represents entertainment suppliers as well as carriers. "Our research says this is what the passengers want."

As welcome as the new entertainment features may be to many passengers, they often come with a bevy of in-flight commercials for services and products. Airline passengers are a captive and potentially lucrative audience, says Brookler, especially on those 15-hour flights from the West Coast to Asia or Australia, and some airlines are eyeing entertainment as a revenue source. On some of its flights, American Airlines shows a short video commercial touting its Visa card, which earns frequent-flier mileage credits on American for every dollar charged.

Right now, some 34 international airlines are either installing or at least seriously considering at-seat video screens in first- and business-class cabins, according to Brookler. Virgin Atlantic Airways, the upstart British carrier flying between the United States and London, was the first airline to offer individual videos at every seat, including economy coach. Passengers on its 747 fleet have a choice of two movie channels, playing up to four different movies each during a long transatlantic flight, as well as four other video channels with comedy, sports, pop videos and children's features.

Entertainment aloft comes in many forms. In Upper Class, the name Virgin Atlantic gives to its business-class cabin, transatlantic passengers can make an appointment for a complimentary in-flight massage (shoulder and scalp) or a manicure.

And this is only the beginning. In the future, predicts Brookler, passengers on long international flights may be able to while away the hours gambling in their seats.

Among the changes underway in cabin services aloft:

Meal Cutbacks--In addition to lightening its silverware load, Northwest has shortened the time during which it will provide a hot dinner, according to spokesman Jim Faulkner. Previously, dinner was served on flights departing between 5 and 7:30 p.m.; now it is offered only on flights from 5 to 7 p.m. To save money on dishwashing costs, the airline is serving luncheon snacks in reusable baskets. And to cut the cost of coffee, it is using a finer grind--a move that brews more coffee from fewer beans. The savings on coffee alone is more than $100,000 annually.

Frequent Flyer, a monthly magazine published by Official Airline Guides, reported this month that Delta has decided to feature pasta in lieu of meat on many coach menus to save $1.5 million annually. The airline also plans to substitute cookies for cakes and pies to save $2 million, and it is stripping the bottom piece of lettuce off salad plates to save $1.7 million.

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