Days of bare-bones flying may be over

Celebrity-designed signature cocktails, world-famous culinary treats from top chefs and entertainment features from big-name companies are not exactly standard airplane fare.

But as major airlines crawl out of bankruptcy and are increasingly being forced to compete with perks-heavy low-cost carriers, fliers are encouraged to forget the days of the plastic spork, a handful of granola and a tiny cup of juice.

Some of the so-called legacy carriers are stepping up services to include top-quality food, metal cutlery, glassware and pillows.

Atlanta-based Delta Airlines announced last week that it will start selling sandwiches and salads on a few transcontinental flights in mid-September, in a lead-up to a new menu that will debut in November. The revitalized menu was fashioned by celebrity chef Todd English, company spokesman Anthony Black said.

More seat-back screens are being added for flights that are at least four hours or 2,000 miles long. Installation of screens is expected to be complete by next summer’s travel season.

No cash? No problem, Black said, noting the airline will also start accepting on-board credit card purchases for food and beverages.

The frills are a far cry from the company’s dark days of bankruptcy, which started in September 2005 and lifted in April, the approximate time Delta stopped serving food and providing pillows to cut costs.

This summer, three low-cost airlines made a return or debut at San Francisco International Airport: Southwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Virgin America. The airlines sparked an unprecedented summer airfare war and a battle to see which airline could provide the best amenities.

Delta’s announcement comes on the heels of a new United Airlines endeavor to have snazzier in-flight entertainment systems and seats that can recline to a near-horizontal position, features already built in at carriers such as Virgin America and JetBlue.

Continental Airlines spokesman David Messing said the low-cost carriers have the luxury of building these amenities into their new fleets, while the older, larger carriers have to make costly retrofits to their older aircraft — Continental has more than 350 — to accommodate the perks. Messing could not provide a cost estimate of retrofitting the planes, but noted that in the last two years, the company has been able to add touch-screens to seat backs and, more recently, provide in-seat electrical outlets for laptops and other electronic devices.

Analysts have said the major airlines are starting to see business shift to low-cost carriers that provide more entertainment and amenities.

“People are looking for diversions,” Messing said. “A magazine and newspaper are greatsometimes, but our customers are starting to look for more.”

tramroop@examiner.com

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