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Will airlines bring back free food and Wi-Fi for passengers?

Airlines are making efforts to bring back the creature comforts of days gone by, expanding free snack and meal programs for travelers. 

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A Delta jet sits at a gate at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Oct. 13, 2016.

David Goldman/AP

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Just in time for the Christmas rush, airlines have announced plans to bring back some creature comforts of air travel. Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation has reopened debate about allowing flyers to make cellphone calls while in flight.

This marks a dramatic shift from the years-long trend toward cutting services and frills. What is driving the return of travel perks?

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“Part of it is that in many cases the costs of providing things like better snacks are trivial, and I think it has been long enough since we had them that these frills are kind of new again,” says Kent Gourdin, the director of the Global Logistics and Transportation program at the College of Charleston.

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With oil costs down and profits up, Bloomberg reports that airlines have started making enough money in recent years to justify expanding services to passengers. In the first half of 2016 alone, the industry made $700 million more than it did over the same period last year.

That recent improvement in airline profits is good for passengers, too. American Airlines announced in August that it would provide all passengers with free in-flight entertainment, for example, just months after suing internet provider GoGo for too-slow internet speeds. In June, American brokered a new deal with provider ViaSat that expanded internet coverage to the airline’s newest airplanes.

In 2016, Delta and American both also expanded their snack selections and service on domestic flights. And in the holiday travel months of November and December, Delta is bringing back free meals to some travelers who fly on transcontinental trips between New York City and Los Angeles or San Francisco.

"Testing meals on transcon flights is part of our commitment to be thoughtful about our offerings and make decisions based on customers' needs," said Delta’s senior vice president of in-flight service, Allison Ausband, in a press release.

And airline improvements are extending beyond creature comforts, too. The 2016 Airline Quality Rating report produced by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor Brent Bowen and Wichita State University professor Dean Headley found that six airlines have improved their Airline Quality scores over the past year, while six have declined in quality. These ratings are based on factors such as proper baggage handling, on-time arrivals, and customer complaints.

Among those who have improved are some of the country’s largest carriers, including Delta, Southwest, JetBlue, and United. But despite its improvements in snack and internet quality, American is among the air carriers who have slipped in the past year.

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The federal government may take steps to improve the customer experience as well. The Department of Transportation is considering changing airline regulations to give passengers the option to make phone calls while in flight.

The effort to lift the in-flight call ban started in 2013, with prompting from Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler. Now, the availability of Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi-enabled calling has prompted transportation officials to re-evaluate regulations.

The Department of Transportation has recently proposed letting each airline define its own policy on in-flight calls, although the current federal ban on in-flight cellular service remains.

But that also increases the chances of someone shouting into their phone in a crowded space.

“The Department of Transportation is proposing to protect airline passengers from being unwillingly exposed to voice calls within the confines of an airplane,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in the proposal.

Airlines, too, say that they want to protect customers from the potential din of a late-night flight full of phone calls shouted over engine noise.

Delta and JetBlue have previously said that they will continue to ban calls in flight, no matter the Department of Transportation’s decision, according to the Wall Street Journal. United also bars voice calls. 

Dr. Gourdin tells The Christian Science Monitor that he doesn’t think that this will remain the case for long, however.

“If there’s a demand for it, I think the airlines will allow it,” he says. “It will be just another way of making money for them.”