Next time you're flying coach on Delta Airlines (DAL), and you want an almond butter and grape jelly sandwich or a grilled chicken gyro, you'd better have a credit or debit card handy. The jelly sandwich is $4, the gyro $8 -- and cash transactions for food will soon be history.

In the wake of the September 11 terror attacks eight years ago, airlines cut their free food service, citing financial woes. We've all gotten used to that. But at least they used to take cash. Now they're increasingly declining to sell food or alcoholic beverages unless you're carrying plastic.
On December 1, Delta becomes the latest airline to ban cash in the sky for flights in North America, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Delta joins other major carriers who have implemented a cashless cabin over the past year. Delta's ban will extend to all flights to and from North America, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Continental Airlines (CAL), for its part, will implement that policy on almost all flights worldwide starting that day (although that airline still offers some free food on mealtime flights, so the cards will be just for the booze). That will leave US. Airways (LCC) the only major carrier accepting cash on domestic flights. "We're weighing options," a US Airways publicist says. "We like having the option for customers to use cash or credit/debit cards."

But it's only a matter of time before that airline joins its rivals, says aviation consultant Michael Boyd: "Within a year, cash in the skies will be an obstacle."

The reason? Efficiency. Flight attendants can serve customers quicker when they don't have to make change. The PDAs staffers use to take orders and swipe cards will tell airlines instantly which liquor and food items are the top sellers, and increase their stock.

No one can blame business travelers for being confused. Until recently, some airlines only accepted cash; today, Northwest sticks to that, accepting only cash for food and beverage purchases, even though Delta purchased Northwest last year. Delta is still merging with Northwest, a spokesman says.

"This is what our customers want,'' the spokesman adds. "A cashless cabin improves service." Of course, it will also improves profits for credit-card companies. "People spend more with plastic,'' says Dan Ray, managing editor of CreditCards.com. "They might think twice about paying $5 for a beer in-flight if they had had to pay with cash.''

Certainly, there are advantages to a cashless cabin. Every frequent flyer has witnessed flight attendants bothering everyone on the flight trying to make change for that one passenger with only a $50 bill. It's not a pretty sight.

Still, not everyone is excited. My seatmate on a recent United flight from San Francisco to Chicago was rebuffed when he tried to buy a light beer with cash. "This is one more place that has my credit card information, '' he said, frustrated, after handing over his card. "I would rather pay cash and not have to worry that someone is going to misuse my credit cards.'' Airlines insist their systems are secure, of course, as any merchant must.

For now, business travelers must be grateful for the small things -- like the fact that it's usually the flight attendant who swipes the credit card. But soon, the Virgin America model could take hold. On a recent fight, to get a $7 bagel with fruit and yogurt, I had to find the online menu on my seatback, and then swipe my own credit card. For now, at least, you don't have to join a cafeteria line for it -- that $7 charge includes free delivery to your seat.

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