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In-Flight Movies: The Latest in Airline Cost-Cutting

How to cope with sensory deprivation on your next flight

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Rarely a news cycle passes lately without an airline announcing some new surcharge or reduction in services, all due to ... uhh ... fuel prices! Yeah, that's the ticket! It's the fuel prices.

This week did not disappoint. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, US Airways is going to eliminate in-flight movies from all domestic flights beginning this fall.

For years, the big airlines scoffed at the discount upstarts for failing to offer sufficient customer amenities, but the tables are rapidly turning, the playing field leveling and the superiority of the Big Six (or "legacy carriers") fading all the time. Jet Blue still offers in-flight DIRECTV; meanwhile, US Airways joins "lowly" -- yet still beloved of travelers -- Southwest Airlines in offering no in-flight movies.

Why? Instead of telling it straight -- they're trying to make more money -- US Airways first blames fuel costs before fessing up; even their spokesperson seems to know that the fuel expense gambit isn't going to cut it on this one.

But let's take them at their word -- for now -- and do the math. In-flight entertainment systems weigh about 500 pounds. A Boeing 747 weighs about 393,000 pounds dry and empty. When fully loaded, it weighs over 800,000 pounds. Most of the US Airways fleet that would be affected consists of Airbus A-320 planes, with a maximum takeoff weight of 169,000 pounds. So the video equipment on a 747 is about 0.06 percent of the total weight; on US Airways' A-320's, it is just about 0.29 percent of the total weight.

How much additional drag does a fraction of a percent of additional weight create? I'm not an aeronautical engineer, and don't have the space or wherewithal to go into drag coefficients, so let's simplify things for the sake of argument: If a passenger weighs 200 pounds, the equivalent of 0.3 percent of his body weight is 0.59 pounds -- less than a can of soda.

We travelers may look dumb, and we may act dumb, but we still know that a single can of soda isn't going to make much difference, even if we could flap our arms and take flight.

Under pressure, US Airways did mention some other, more valid concerns: the number of people purchasing headphones (which, ahem, used to be free) has declined, and they do have to pay the movie companies for the right to show the films, an expense they will eliminate. With all these cuts in service, though, we do notice that executive pay is keeping pace with mogul standards quite nicely, of course. Movies, bad; obscenely bloated bonuses, doubleplusgood. But since the video equipment has to go, can we ask that the in-flight video commercials featuring said moguls that we're forced to endure are jettisoned as well? If so, there is a silver lining after all.

News of the Odd
This latest news from US Airways was oddly tied in by some commentators to a recent fake ad in newspapers in Philadelphia -- US Airways' hub, it turns out -- announcing a new airline that would set fares by passenger pound, measured as the combined weight of a passenger and his or her luggage. It turns out the ad was a stunt by a group of Philly newspapers, created in hopes of creating a media firestorm that would in turn underscore the effectiveness of advertising in said newspapers. Talk about a cheap shot -- "we need a new marketing strategy, so let's go after overweight people" -- but they did get plenty of attention for the phony Derrie-Air airline.

The ensuing brouhaha put into stark relief a simmering debate: If we're bean counting by the pound due to fuel costs, then lighter travelers overall should pay less. This is very possibly where we are headed with luggage, in my opinion, but the airlines are going to have some problems if they try to apply this to passenger weight. Some advocates have rightly pointed out that it will not be "overweight" passengers who will rebel, but "normal weight" passengers who are larger people overall. For example, a 6'3" man who is built like a long-distance runner will weigh much more than his 5'7" running partner - so he would effectively be paying more simply for being tall. It will never happen.

Tips for Staying Sane in a Sensory Deprivation Cabin
That the airlines need to cut costs and remain profitable is not under debate here, I promise; my beef is about the choices they make to do this -- which are almost always to stick it to the customer and to the frontline staff, who then take out their frustrations on the customer. They also don't mind having taxpayers and creditors bail them out, which of course sticks it to the customer once again. However, they don't address their wacked-out fare structures (which rely on loss leader fares and predatory pricing on one hand and gouging on the other), or obscene executive compensation outlays, or worker morale, or any of the other things that would help both the bottom line and the customer experience.

So we're on our own here, and we'll need to develop survival tactics. Several years ago, I wrote a collection of tips on surviving a long cross-country flight. These included submitting to watching the in-flight movie, even if you weren't that interested in the movie. My reasoning was that, by the end of the flight when you have stared at a seatback for far too long, you'll appreciate the two hours you let pass mindlessly during the movie. For flights where that's no longer an option, here are a few tips for passing those extra two hours.

Note that, in addition to US Airways and Southwest, you'll need these tips also on many or most domestic flights on Northwest, Alaska Airlines and American Airlines, all of which offer no or meager in-flight entertainment. And given the copycat, "follow the loser" behavior of much of the airline industry, this list will only get longer.

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