I WAS GETTING READY to board an early American Airlines flight out of Miami, and they announced that it was going to be "bistro service."

I honestly wasn't sure what "bistro" meant, but it sounded French, which I thought was a good sign. French food is pretty tasty, except for the snails, which I do not believe the French actually eat. I believe the French sit around their restaurants pretending to eat out of empty snail shells and making French sounds of enjoyment such as "Yumme!" (literally, "Yum!"). But when foreign tourists order this "delicacy," the waiters bring them shells that still contain actual unretouched snails, which the tourists eat, causing the French people to duck under their tables and laugh until red wine spurts from their nostrils.

But other than that, French food is pretty good. So I had high hopes when, on my way to board the plane, I stopped at the "bistro" cart and picked up a paper sack containing my "bistro" meal. I was hungry, because I had not eaten breakfast, because I had arrived at the airport one hour early so that, in accordance with airline procedures, I could stand around.

When the plane took off, I opened my "bistro" sack. Here are the items it contained: (1) a container of yogurt, (2) a "breakfast bar" made from compressed dried wood chips, and (3) the greenest, coldest, hardest banana I have ever touched in my life. If I'd had a mallet, I could have pounded it straight into a vampire's heart.

So I didn't eat the banana. Needless to say I also didn't eat the yogurt. My guess is, nobody ever eats the yogurt; at the end of the flight, the airline people just collect all the unused yogurts and put them back into "bistro" sacks for the next flight. There are containers of airline yogurt still in circulation that originally crossed the Atlantic with Charles Lindbergh.

I did eat the "breakfast bar," because if you're hungry enough, you will eat wood chips. (That's why beavers do it. There is no way they would gnaw on trees if they ever found out about pizza delivery.)

Anyway, the flight was scheduled to go directly to Houston, so finally, after navigating around the sky for several hours, we landed in: New Orleans. The pilot said there was fog in Houston. No doubt it was manufactured by the Fog Generator, which every modern airport maintains right next to the Banana Freezer.

They didn't let the passengers off the plane in New Orleans, possibly for fear that we would run away. So we just sat there for an hour or so, rustling our "bistro meal" sacks and listening to our stomachs grumble. Here's how bad it got: A woman across the aisle from me finally broke down and ate her yogurt. I bet this really messed up the accounting when the airline food personnel got ready to re-sack the yogurt for the next flight ("Hey! There's one missing!").

Anyway, we finally took off again and landed in Houston, where we dropped to our knees and gratefully licked crumbs off the terminal floor. So the story ended happily, except for the nagging question that remained stuck in my mind: Why did the airline call it "bistro service"? When I got home, I looked up "bistro." According to my dictionary, it's a French word meaning "a small wine shop or restaurant where wine is served." The image it conjures up is of a cozy little place on a picturesque little street in Paris, with candle-lit tables for two occupied by lovers kissing, drinking wine, enjoying French food and laughing at snail-eating tourists. Somehow, the airline decided to use this word, of all the words in the world, to describe what was served on my flight.

Why? The answer is: marketing. At some point, American Airlines went to its marketing department and said, "We're going to stop serving real food to people, and we need a good name for it." Marketing people love this kind of challenge. Their motto is: "When life hands you lemons, lie." And so they held a brainstorming session, probably at a nice French restaurant, and finally, after a lot of wine, they came up with "bistro service," which sounds a lot better, from a marketing standpoint, than "a sack of inedible objects."

Giving things ridiculous names is a key marketing tactic. That's why the gambling industry, when it became concerned that people might think it had something to do with gambling, changed its name to the "gaming" industry, as if people go to Las Vegas to play Capture the Flag.

But I think "bistro service" is even better. It may be the best marketing concept I have seen since back in the 1970s, when McDonald's, which does not wait on your table, does not cook your food to order, and does not clear your table, came up with the slogan "We Do It All for You."

With this kind of marketing ingenuity, there is no telling how far we can go. Perhaps someday, when we board our airplane, we will each pick up a box of dirt; this will be called "haute cuisine service." We will take the box without complaining. Because we are consumers, and our motto is "moo."