SHORTLY after the 8 a.m. plane from Boston to Atlanta levels off to a cruising altitude, flight attendants begin wheeling food carts through the aisles. For hungry passengers who left home at dawn to get to the airport, it is a welcome sight: Breakfast!
But wait. Instead of the usual tray of food, the attendant sets down a small napkin, on which she places a bagel, a tiny foil container of cream cheese, and a plastic knife.
``Is that all?'' an alarmed passenger asks as the flight attendant moves to the next row. ``Yes,'' she replies. ``We've revised our meal service, and this is now a snack flight.'' Breakfast, it turns out, is only served between 7 and 8 a.m.
For travelers who remember the old days when breakfast aloft included omelettes, fresh fruit, and muffins, or even the recent past when morning fare became cold cereal and fruit, this minimalist snack comes as a jolt. It may be a long way to Tipperary, but it seems like an even longer way to Tampa - the final destination of this flight at 1:15 p.m. - with nothing to eat except a bagel and a beverage, followed by pretzels and a soft drink on the second leg.
This pared-down service gives new meaning to the acronym BYOB: Bring Your Own Breakfast - and your own lunch and dinner as well.
Over the years, airline food has taken its share of pies in the face. Time was when any comedian worth his or her salt and pepper relished the chance to lampoon what was commonly dismissed as high-altitude TV dinners.
Now the joke may be on the flying public, forced to make do with plastic bags of trail mix and half-sandwiches sealed in foil. Meals have all but disappeared on coach-class flights under two hours and have been drastically scaled back on longer routes.
Pity the poor airlines. Fierce competition and fare wars have produced rivers of red ink, forcing major carriers to lay off employees, eliminate hot food, and replace galleys with extra seats.
But pity the poor passengers as well. Dining at 35,000 feet may not have been the Ritz, but it was a meal and a diversion. Today the alternative - scurrying for overpriced fast food in an airport between flights - seems even less appealing.
Nor is a lack of food the only problem. The incredible disappearing meal follows on the heels of the incredible shrinking seat. The old philosophical question - How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? - has been updated to read: How many people can fit in the cabin of a 747 or 727? Too many, alas, as passengers shoehorned into ever-narrower seats can attest.
This month also marks the devaluing of frequent-flyer miles - a change that some irate passengers threaten to protest all the way to the Supreme Court. The one bit of good news is that airlines have become almost smoke-free. This week Delta became the first United States carrier to ban smoking on all flights.
Is economy class on airlines destined to become the late-20th-century version of steerage class on 19th-century sailing ships? Will major airlines imitate the now-defunct People's Express by eventually charging for food and checked baggage? Probably not, although who can say? Even headsets, after all, which were once handed out at no charge, now come with a rental fee attached.
Travel has always required the utmost flexibility, patience, and good humor. Missed connections, bumpy rides, talkative seatmates, inclement weather, noisy hotel rooms, poor food - the list of inconveniences runs long. Yet even these challenges fail to deter legions of global wanderers whose ranks grow by the day.
With ships and even scenic trains, the old saying was justified: Half the fun is getting there. This has never been true of air travel, and it's probably about time to face up to the fact, albeit reluctantly. Forget the perks. Forget the filet mignon, the free movies, the attendants plumping soft pillows. The idea is to get from point A to point B - fast. And when people travel at the speed of astronauts, they'll eat like astronauts. Breakfast tablets anybody? @QUOTE = Dining at 35,000 feet may not have been the Ritz, but it was a meal. The alternative - scurrying for fast food in an airport between flights - seems even less appealing.