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Airlines Bring Free Sandwiches and Streaming Back to Coach

After decades of red ink, U.S. airlines have gotten their financial houses in significantly better order. And while this new wherewithal certainly won’t mean more legroom or free checked bags, some carriers are exploring inexpensive ways to make flying economy class a smidge less arduous.

Free meals and booze are returning on some long domestic flights, and gratis snacks are common again. A few airlines are even dropping fees for streaming audio and video: American Airlines Group Inc. just matched its two-largest domestic peers by offering cattle class free access to its full menu of in-flight entertainment.

These modest steps follow years of “densification” at the back of the plane as carriers sought to boost profits by adding seats and crunching knees. At the same time, travelers at the front of the plane were courted with ever-increasing opulence. While a seat-count reduction for the less fortunate isn’t in the cards, those free movies may be sufficiently engrossing to make you forget the lack of space or your oversized neighbor.

“Even the smallest thing can seem like a big deal,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst at Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco. “When you’re an abused animal, even a tiny pat on the head can make you feel like you’re loved.”

The improvements are...


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