For instance, at an investor conference in September, President Scott Kirby noted that "the cabin environment is much calmer and more efficient." In the past, he said, because drinks were free, nearly every passenger had one. The charge meant that carts no longer clogged the aisles, restroom lines diminished, less trash was left on board, and the frequency of aircraft catering diminished.

Nevertheless, last week, Mike Flores, president of the US Airways chapter of the Association of Flight Attendants, called the policy "a complete disaster" in an e-mail to union members.

"Passenger complaints have not died down (and) the quantity and provisioning of beverages is inconsistent," Flores wrote, noting that passengers sometimes become upset when flight attendants run out of drinks. "Simply put, the a la carte beverage program needs to go," he wrote. "No other airline has matched us and none will."

On Sunday night, Flores said the decision to drop the beverage charge likely was motivated by a continuing high level of passenger complaints and the failure of other carriers to match.

"The bottom line is that the airline industry is not the transportation industry," Flores said. "It's a customer service industry and if you're not pleasing your customers then you've got a problem."

While 2008 was a year when airlines generally benefited from adding fees for various services including the first checked bag, the second checked bag, and ticketing changes, occasional policy revisions have occurred.

In November, five months after AMR ( AMR) unit American introduced the concept of charging to check a first bag, Delta ( DAL) became the last major network carrier to sign on to the policy.

Delta had thought it might benefit by holding itself out as a carrier that eschewed the fee, but its passengers -- seemingly unaware of the distinction -- increasingly were carrying bags on board in an effort to avoid paying the non-existent fee.

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