The free meal, long gone, returns on some airlines

It seemed to be extinct. The airlines stopped offering it on domestic flights more than a decade ago, along with other amenities that once made air travel an adventure rather than an endurance test. And yet it has reappeared in recent months: a free meal in coach.

Continuing their emergence from hard economic times, some airlines have begun adding complimentary breakfast, lunch or dinner on some of their flights in the United States.

“Customers look at flight price and schedule,” said Dara Khosrowshahi, who until recently was chief executive of the online travel agent Expedia and is now chief executive of the ride-hailing company Uber. “Airlines want to get beyond that, so they are merchandising and adding things like Wi-Fi, free entertainment and meals.”

Delta discontinued complimentary meals in 2001 as a cost-cutting measure, as most of the major airlines did at the time. “We all used to complain about airline food in coach, but once it was gone we missed it,” said Gary Leff, a travel expert who writes the View From the Wing blog.

The industry is getting back on its feet financially now, Khosrowshahi said in an interview at Expedia headquarters in late August, the day his appointment to lead Uber was confirmed.

Last March, Delta began offering complimentary meals in the main cabin of some of its flights in 10 domestic markets. Most are cross-country, but one, between Orlando, Florida, and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, may signal further expansion of free meals to shorter flights.

Delta’s snacks have also gotten an overhaul, moving on from “40 years of unbranded peanuts and pretzels,” said Lisa Bauer, Delta’s vice president for onboard service, to a variety that includes sweet, salty, healthy and gluten-free choices that will be rotated every six months.

Adam Lathram, a health technology entrepreneur from New York, said the complimentary turkey waffle sandwich he was served on a Delta flight from New York to Seattle was a nice surprise. “Knowing they offer food on cross-country flights is even more of a reason to fly with Delta,” he said. “Can’t say I’d pay more for it, but I certainly appreciate it.”

The company tried to replicate what the customers would naturally choose for themselves, “if they weren’t at 35,000 feet,” Bauer said. And that includes local and seasonal foods.

American Airlines introduced complimentary main cabin meals in May to customers flying between Los Angeles or San Francisco, and Kennedy International Airport in New York. Depending on the time of day, customers will be offered a continental breakfast or a sandwich wrap, chips and dessert. The menu also includes a vegetarian option and a fruit and cheese plate.

United Airlines does not plan to bring back free meals, said Jonathan Guerin, an airline spokesman, but did start offering a free snack last year to travelers in economy class on domestic and Latin American flights.

Airlines pay special attention to the amenities they offer on routes popular with business flyers because they are in fierce competition for those high-paying customers, Leff said. “The experience on the flight does matter and will influence their decision-making on future flights,” he said.

Expedia, as an airline partner, is researching the best way to spread word about the new free meals to customers.

“Lots of people travel just a few times a year so they don’t even know free meals are coming back on some flights,” said Scott Jones, vice president for design and user experience at Expedia. “And if you are traveling with a family of five, that could make a difference in your decision.”

Expedia’s flight search results currently note if flights have food for purchase or if the meals are complimentary.

Websites like SeatGuru and RouteHappy can also help customers figure out if their flights will include Wi-Fi, meals or other amenities.

Despite some well-publicized debacles, as when a passenger was dragged from an overbooked United flight, satisfaction with airlines has been inching up. That is the finding of the annual study by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which provides data on consumer satisfaction with the quality of products and services in 43 industries.

Low prices have been an important factor, according to the report, but the airlines have been improving in a variety of areas. They are increasing their free in-flight offerings like Wi-Fi, entertainment and power outlets, sending alerts to notify flyers of delays, streamlining the check-in process via phone app or kiosk, and losing fewer bags.

Still, “air travel does not generate much passenger satisfaction compared to other consumption activities,” according to the report, which notes seat comfort as the biggest remaining problem.

Not surprisingly, customers have reacted favorably to the food upgrades. Along with the free entertainment options and a focus on cabin service by the flight attendants, said Bauer of Delta, “We have seen significant improvement across a variety of metrics, most notably, our Net Promoter Score,” which is the willingness of customers to recommend a company’s products or services to others.

In an industry that often seems to adopt a “me, too” attitude, free meals seem to be an exception, for now. “We know that for customers booking an economy flight, cost and convenience are the important elements to them, whereas catering is not,” said Caroline Niven, vice president for communications for British Airlines.

The company has moved to a buy-on-board model for short-haul flights from London to the rest of Europe. “This allows us to offer superior-quality products for those who want it,” Niven said, “rather than basic food for everyone, irrespective of whether they want it or not.”

Alaska Airlines said it was not planning to offer free meals on flights on Alaska Airlines or its newly acquired carrier, Virgin America. According to the company’s research, food and beverage “is not a key factor” for flyers. They are most concerned with on-time ratings, customer service track record and mileage plan offerings.

“We have a winning formula that customers like,” said a spokeswoman, Ann Johnson, citing the fact that Alaska Airlines has ranked highest among the large North American carriers in customer satisfaction in the last 10 years of reports by the research firm J.D. Power.

Bauer of Delta said a free meal alone might not change a customer’s mind. But she said she hoped that given a package of amenities and service, a customer faced with two flights might choose the one run by Delta, even if it costs a little more.

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