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Delta Drops Food Sales, to Offer More Free Snacks

Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL) is dropping its food-for-sale program, but boosting prices on alcoholic beverages and eliminating pillows on many flights as the struggling carrier seeks to improve customer service even as its tries to become more efficient and cut costs.

The nation's third-largest airline announced Wednesday that starting April 3 it will replace its food-for-sale program, which was launched on selected flights in July 2003, with a wider assortment of free snacks in coach class on most domestic and some Latin American and Caribbean flights of more than 90 minutes.

Delta's discount subsidiary Song will still offer food for sale, spokesman John Kennedy said.

In 2001, Delta, along with many of its rivals, curtailed food service to reduce costs as air travel plummeted. Two years later, Delta announced it would offer a new menu — from Mediterranean chicken to New York cheesecake — in hopes that customers would pay for it.

The meals cost up to $10 and were initially sold on 400 flights.

The Atlanta-based airline also said Wednesday it is hiking the price of alcoholic beverages from $4 to $5 on all domestic and international flights. The booze price increase does not apply to Song.

The airline said that pillows will no longer be provided on Delta flights within the 48 contiguous states, Bermuda, Canada and Central American and Caribbean destinations beginning in mid-March. Blankets will continue to be available on those flights.

Delta said in a statement that shedding pillows will provide more room for carry-on luggage in overhead bins and reduce costs, though Kennedy said cutting costs is not the main reason for the changes announced Wednesday.

"Our customers let us know that they wanted more service delivered more consistently across the board," Kennedy said. "So, we eliminated the food for sale to accommodate a more convenient, more consistent snack service for more customers."

At the same time, Kennedy added in the context of the changes, "Suffice it to say, it's part of our transformation program, which is looking to eliminate more than $5 billion (in costs) by the end of 2006."

Asked whether the food-for-sale program was successful, Kennedy said, "I do not know whether money was lost or made."

Kennedy also declined to say how much money the airline expects to save from eliminating pillows on many flights and from better operational efficiency through reducing the time it takes to return a plane to service.

Delta said it will continue to offer free meals to first-class passengers on flights longer than 3 1/2 hours. Free meals also will continue for all passengers on international flights of at least five hours, as well as flights to and from Hawaii and Alaska.

In its announcement Wednesday, Delta said that instead of food for sale it will now offer a wider assortment of name-brand snacks, including multigrain chips, honey roasted peanuts and wheat crackers. A prearranged snack pack of crackers, cheese, Oreo cookies and Sun-Maid raisins will be offered in coach class on flights longer than 3 1/2 hours.

Currently, juices, soft drinks, pretzels and other snacks are offered to passengers on many Delta flights.

A spokeswoman said at the time the food-for-sale program was launched in 2003 that the food probably wouldn't turn much profit, if any, but would help placate customers who wanted to eat on flights. Delta also said at the time that it hoped the effort would help lure new business, as part of a wider effort to reverse losses.

At the time, Northwest Airlines (NWAC), based in Eagan, Minn., also had a meals-for-sale program on some flights. Fort Worth, Texas-based American Airlines, the nation's largest carrier, said at the time that it was in preliminary talks with vendors about selling food at airport gates.

As losses have mounted at the carriers over the last year and fuel prices have continued to increase, some major carriers have cut back on some services. Delta lost more than $5 billion last year.

Last month, American said pillows would be removed from most flights in a cost-cutting move expected to save another $370,000 by reducing the amount of time needed to clean up cabins and the money spent on restocking the pillows.

Delta shares slipped 4 cents to $5.05 on the New York Stock Exchange (search). Its shares have traded in a 52-week range of $2.75 and $9.17.