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Sky Box

Shag or shul -- it's your choice, in Airbus's ever-friendlier skies.

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Having fun at 35,000 feet may soon mean more than just an extra in-flight cocktail. If Virgin Atlantic has its way, passengers will soon be getting shagadelic in their own private airborne boudoir. And on El Al, devoted daveners may find themselves praising the Lord in a jet-propelled shul.

If Airbus beats Boeing in the current bidding war for big-bucks contracts, its new glorified baggage containers -- which can be converted into business centers, bedrooms, even bar or bat mitzvah temples -- may soon take off on several airlines. Somebody at the world's second-largest aircraft manufacturer figured out that specially outfitted cargo containers -- originally designed as crew rest pods -- may have sexier or more spiritual uses. (This despite the fact that the design is more soup-can than sumptuous.) Due in 2002, Virgin's new Airbus fleets will offer private bedrooms with double beds beneath the first-class section of seats. One former Virgin executive recalls chairman Richard Branson saying, "You can do it on trains, you can do it on boats. Who's to say you can't do it on planes? At Virgin, we're going to legitimize the Mile High Club."

Airbus wants Virgin and other carriers to also consider using the below-deck containers for lounges, showers, exercise and massage areas, and whatever else lures passengers. "It's a marketing tool that each airline can use as it sees fit," explains Airbus spokesperson Mark Luginbill.

But the French-based firm seems particularly eager to woo El Al, which operates an all-Boeing fleet. Just last week, Boeing's CEO met with Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak in hopes of cementing a new deal with the state-owned carrier. The Airbus counterstrategy? Use the cargo container as a makeshift temple with capacity for ten to twelve, sweetening the deal with one last enticement: Since the portable synagogue is mounted on tracks, it can be rotated to face Jerusalem regardless of the flight path. No word yet on whether Royal Jordanian will request the same treatment for a flight to Mecca.


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