Coffee, Tea or Media?

By Robert MacMillan Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 31, 2005; 10:00 AM

Telling the world that it had to cancel the free pretzels must have felt like one of those rock-bottom moments for Northwest Airlines Corp.

The pretzel announcement is yet another example of how financial instability is buffeting the nation's airlines. While experts predict that the summer travel season will produce long airport lines and endless passenger frustration, carriers are trying to keep their charges satisfied while they wrestle with high fuel costs, security concerns and employee dissatisfaction. (Even the idea of saving $2 million by acing a food item wasn't original.)

This sounds like a job for technology. The airlines are trying to find ways that digital entertainment can prop up sales and attract more open wallets. Here's the lowdown from the Boston Globe: "Serving meals and offering blankets require a constant flow of cash for replenishing supplies, and passengers have shown, executives say, that they would rather get a cheaper ticket than pay for the cost of an in-flight meal with their fares. But installing the monitors, servers, or other equipment required for in-flight entertainment is often a one-time cost that airlines can recoup again and again by renting popular movies, games, or music."

Globe reporter Keith Reed, whose story carries the cute dateline "Aboard Song Flight 2005," used Methuen, Mass., resident Joyce Brearley as his example. Brearley paid $5 to watch "Coach Carter," embodying a phenomenon that the airlines see as a way to coax a few more dollars out of people after attempts to raise fares fizzled.

During the past few years, Reed wrote, the airlines discovered that people love in-flight satellite television and radio. Now they want to see how far they can go in charging people for movies, games, Internet access and digital music, he said. The airline industry won't say how much it makes off paid entertainment, but the article said it spent $1.8 billion on passenger entertainment and communications systems.

Maybe it all boils down to whether customers prize entertainment as highly as they do alcohol. Reed cited two passengers on a Song flight who were willing to drop $6 on a mini bottle of Korbel and $4 on Miller Lite. If you can get passengers to spend that kind of money for cheap booze, you probably can pry out enough scratch to keep the planes flying another few years.

Song isn't the only airline to dabble in the entertainment business, but it must retain some muscular PR representation because it also got a writeup in last week's Wall Street Journal. In that article, reporter Ethan Smith profiled rock group Better Than Ezra and its deal with Song that could see the band shed its one-hit wonder status: "The group's new album is being released by Song Records, a collaborative effort between the airline, Artemis Records and Creative Branding Group Inc., a Los Angeles marketing company. Song Records is an attempt to establish a pop-culture imprint that Song, the airline, hopes will give it a cooler place in the sky than its competition. The venture will expose a select number of music acts, both established and new, to a captive audience of air travelers."

Or you could just bring a book.

The Cook, The Clown, His Sales and Their Gadgets

McDonald's Corp. has a few more tricks up its sleeve than a redheaded clown and a townful of creepy, edible characters. The fast-food chain launched a pilot test of Blaze Net, which the Associated Press described as an ATM-style device that lets customers burn CDs, download cell-phone ringtones and print digital-quality photos.

"The new flagship restaurant near Oakbrook Center mall in Illinois combines several high-tech gadgets yet to be seen in more conventional McDonald's eateries," the AP reported. "The gadgets appear alongside such food offerings as lattes in the McCafe section of the store, which more closely resembles a Starbucks than a burger joint." The move is designed to appeal to younger, hipper folks who use words like "bistro" but long for that special McDonalds tasty-taste.

More restaurants may be following the example of Mickey D's -- and the airlines. The New York Times yesterday ran an article that looks at Atari founder Nolan K. Bushnell's latest concept -- a combination of his technology and culinary ambitions. Bushnell plans to open Media Bistro, a restaurant in West Los Angeles that relies on computers to take food orders and offer videogames for diners who play while they eat.

The article carried skeptical comments from analysts, but even they were quick to add that Bushnell has a success record with ideas they would have thought were turkeys: "Given [his] successes as a serial entrepreneur and his experience with video games and restaurants, industry analysts said they were generally cautious about second-guessing his concept. [Wedbush Morgan Securities analyst Michael Pachter said] he would not have predicted the success of Pong, an arcade game introduced in 1972 that helped usher in the video game revolution. Nor, he said, would he have guessed the popularity of Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theaters, a chain of 498 family restaurants that feature a variety of arcade games."

So it's Bushnell who's behind Chuck E. Cheese. Now he can add "inventor of the modern headache" to his CV.

Vend Me a Lullaby

A San Francisco-based company says it could rake in as much as $60 million a year by 2009 with a vending machine that dispenses iPods, prepaid cell phones, portable DVD players, bottled water and other products, the New York Post reported .

"The machines, which use patented software to deliver the goods with nary a bump, are the brainchild of Gower Smith, the founder and CEO of Zoom Systems, who believes the robotic retail revolution will sweep the nation. 'People have already become comfortable using ATMs,' said Jeff Loomans, a major investor in Zoom. Loomans helps run Sierra Ventures, a venture capital firm that just led a $6.3 million round of financing aimed at rolling the machines out nationally."

Bypassing the Emergency Call Box

Here's another technology to dunk in formaldehyde and add to the museum of innovations past: the emergency roadside call box. USA Today reported that the systems that run the boxes are going dark because everybody has a cell phone these days.

"Rhode Island, where the cost per call had risen to about $7,000, scrapped its 284 call boxes at the end of last year. ... Pennsylvania removed 102 boxes on Interstate 81 last year [and] Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Louisiana are considering scrapping them because of the high costs. A call costs $77.61 on I-255 in Illinois."

The article said that some boxes will remain in service despite the high cost. Pennsylvania Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo told USA Today that 1,038 boxes will continue to serve travelers along 530 miles of toll roads in the turnpike system because there are plenty of areas with little to no cell-phone reception. DeFebo said 16,668 drivers used the boxes in 2004, compared to 39,000 calls in 2000.

My Own Public Internet

New Hampshire's Supreme Court is trying to decide how much information in the state's court system should be made available on the Internet, the AP reported. The issue remains unresolved in a number of court systems where gaining access to some public materials still requires an in-person visit.

A court-appointed taskforce is preparing a report to be released later this summer on how the system's new software will allow public access, the AP said: "Right now, the task force is leaning toward a three-tiered approach: Some information would be public on the Internet; some would be completely confidential; and some would be available on public terminals at the courthouse, but not for people idly cruising the Internet for salacious details about their neighbors. 'There is stuff that should not be on the Internet because it appeals to the titillating interest,' such as sordid details in divorces, said Thomas Kearney, former executive editor of the Keene Sentinel and a task force member. 'Those kinds of personal details don't have a lot to do with the public accountability of the court system.'"

I'm not sure how many of you have read this far down, but I'm anxious to hear your viewpoints. I have a position on this issue, but I'll save it for a future edition of Random Access that I hope will include your viewpoints too. Write to me.

Humans Are So Inconvenient

It's one of the unavoidable tragedies of the technology age: Human beings just aren't properly built for laptops. Wait, maybe I have that backwards. In any case, look at the evidence that CNET's outlined: "As people ditch desktop computers to work full time on laptops, doctors expect to see a lot more pains, strains and injuries among white-collar workers. 'When you look at the design, laptops were never [meant] as a replacement for a desktop computer,' said Alan Hedge, director of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Laboratory at Cornell University. 'The idea was portability for occasional use. It was never intended to be a machine you would work at for eight hours a day, 52 weeks a year.'"

The problems laptops cause are myriad: Repetitive stress injuries, muscle strain and neck cramps are only three of them. Among others are lap burns and -- gasp -- male infertility because of the constant exposure of heat to the, uh, nether regions. Think about that the next time you're people-watching in the airport lounge.

Send links and comments to

© 2005 The Washington Post Company