If your flight feels a little empty these days, it could be something more than just the sharp drop-off in passengers. A traveler's careful eye might note a growing phenomenon of the nation's distressed airlines: the missing flight attendant.

The major carriers have laid off more than 10,000 flight attendants since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to the Association of Flight Attendants, the group that represents more than 50,000 members at 26 airlines.

That's 10,000 fewer smiles when you first board. It's also fewer hands to help with hoisting bags into the overhead compartments. Passengers grouse that the general comforts of air travel are shrinking along with the staff of flight attendants.

In the old days, the airlines installed the cabin crew for both safety and service. Now, the primary concern of most carriers is safety. Flights with 100 passengers or more must have at least two flight attendants, says FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette. For every 50 additional passengers, the airline has to add another crew member.

Step aboard a US Airways from Washington to London or the Caribbean and you'll find five flight attendants on the Boeing 767 instead of eight. Aboard the airline's Airbus-330 flights to Europe you'll be accompanied by just eight flight attendants; in better days there would have been 13. But travelers on the eastern corridor need not worry: There have been no staff reductions on shuttle flights to New York and Boston, says US Airways spokesman David Castelveter.

George Price, a spokesman for American's flight attendants union, said the airline recently wanted to cut the number of attendants on its international flights aboard a Boeing 777 to 10 from 12. The flight attendants union contended that the move would make it too difficult for them to perform their duties. So American backed off and now staffs those flights at the full level. But Price said the airline has reduced two positions on its Boeing 767 jets to Hawaii, Europe and South America.

Most passengers say they're sympathetic to the difficult straits of the attendants. But they have noticed the change. Evelynn M. Ellis of State College, Pa., said the crew seems particularly overtaxed on longer flights.

"Most large planes are grossly understaffed," she said. As a result, passengers must vie for the attention of a flight attendant.

The flight attendants feel the stress. With fewer colleagues, they feel the pressure of a slower boarding process, since they can't help as many passengers as they'd like to stuff their bags overhead. Instead, the crew is forced to focus on passengers with disabilities and unaccompanied minors. It also takes the flight attendants longer to pass out drinks and snacks. And the longer they're in the aisle with the beverage cart, "the longer people are trapped in their seats waiting to get to the restroom," says Alin Boswell, a flight attendant with US Airways.

For 14 years, Boswell has flown primarily on flights to Los Angeles, San Diego or San Francisco. In the past, when there were four attendants on a flight, he was able to give more one-on-one attention to passengers. But now, with only two flight attendants handling more than 100 passengers, he said it's more difficult.

"You realize that this is part of the new airline economy. This is how it's going to be for a long time," Boswell, 39, said.

Not only is the work harder, but the flight attendants also find themselves fretting over their job security, possible pay cuts and even the viability of their airlines.

And with good reason: Last week, US Airways announced it was laying off 890 of its 5,940 flight attendants. The carrier said it would staff most of its longer-haul flights with the minimum number of attendants required by the Federal Aviation Administration. Other major carriers such as Delta Air Lines have also recently reduced some of their flight staffing to government-mandated minimums.

Since the terrorist attacks, American Airlines has cut 2,751 of its 28,000 flight attendants. The airline now wants to cut another 2,400. And if it is forced to file for bankruptcy protection, it could let many more go.

The airlines are being forced to cut costs to stay alive. Labor is one of their biggest costs. With passenger demand weak and the airlines serving fewer meals, there is room to cut the number of flight attendants, airline executives say.

To software application consultant Robert M. Slifko of Pittsburgh, flight attendants have appeared "quite stonelike" on recent flights.

"Lately, the flight attendants make a single pass through the cabin and hide in the galley the rest of the trip," said Slifko, a US Airways frequent flier.

United Sells Food: United Airlines yesterday became the latest carrier to begin selling food to coach-class passengers a la carte. United calls its six-day trial Gate Gourmet, since travelers will be able to purchase meals at the gate. The airline is testing $7 to $10 meals on flights between Denver and Seattle.