updated 7/21/2008 1:40:55 PM ET 2008-07-21T17:40:55

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.

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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, double-plus-good. 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.

Southwest, the industry leader in offering a no-frills service that people seem still to value considerably (and which offers no in-flight movies whatsoever), offers this advice to kids traveling on the airline: "We encourage our young travelers to bring onboard any Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved portable electronic device such as a portable DVD player and enjoy the movie of their choice through the comfort of their personal headphones. The flight attendants will make an announcement during the flight about when it's okay to bring out the device and begin the movie!"

If you are a movie addict, or simply can't make it through a long flight without some diversion, this option is unbeatable. Rather than suffer through the box office flop that the airlines offer on your flight, you can pick your own movies, watch them when you want to, pause them to take a nap or get out of your seat, and finish watching them that night in your hotel room or on the flight home if you wish. With compact DVD players coming in at under $100, it would only take 10 roundtrip flights to pay off the cost of the headphones.

A laptop computer can serve the same function well, except that, as seat pitch has decreased, it is increasingly difficult to open a laptop sufficiently even to see the screen. And forget about it when the passenger in front of you jacks her seatback into your lap.

It's worth noting that the average compact DVD player weighs about five pounds, so if 100 passengers carry a laptop or DVD player on board, that's 500 pounds, and we're back to where we started. (This is in part why it is not outside the realm of possibility that we start paying for luggage, including carry-on luggage, by the pound.)

Get small
Tech gadgets get smaller all the time, and you no longer need a laptop or a DVD player to watch movies; you can do it on your phone. By now, there's not a whole lot you can't do on a tricked-out phone that you can do on a computer, and watching movies is no exception. Previously there was the complication that you are not yet allowed to turn on your phone in flight, but even this has been solved; both the Blackberry and iPhone, for example, have an "airplane mode" in which the wireless features are disabled, allowing you to use all the other features of the phone, including watching movies you have already downloaded onto the device.

Focus on sleep
Most Americans are somewhat (if not extremely) sleep-deprived, and an airplane without meal service, snacks, Internet access or movies seems like a perfect place to catch up on sleep — in fact, there's almost less to do on a plane than there is in your own bed.

The problem, of course, is that airplane seats are singularly inhospitable to comfort and relaxation, and it only gets worse on longer flights. Nonetheless, I have made it my own policy to sleep on planes whenever possible; it is a very rare opportunity to make a claim on winks I will otherwise never get back. For more tips, check out Sleeping on Planes.

Stay home and go to a movie theater
They're much more comfortable anyway.

Read a book?

Sure, it's old tech, just a suggestion ...


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