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Continental Ditches Free Food For Flights Under 6 Hours

Larry Kellner has only been gone as head of Continental for a couple months and already new CEO Jeff Smisek is making plenty of changes. The most visible one to coach Airplane foodpassengers is likely to be the elimination of free meals, something that was long the pride and joy of Continental. They’ve finally caved, and I imagine there will be mixed emotions on this one.

On the one hand, people always liked that Continental stood their ground and kept at least SOMETHING in the back of the bus that reminded people of the old days. Was the free meal anything special? No way. It was edible at best, though I did have a soft spot for that cheeseburger in a bag. (Do they still have that?) But even if you didn’t like it, it was comfort food, and that was nice. There was also something psychologically-appealing about them seeming to care enough for you to keep food around, even if it was crappy. It just seemed like the last vestige of civility. Former CEO Gordon Bethune summed it up well with his thoughts after 9/11.

Our reaction was to be ourselves more than we ever were. Didn’t take away the movies, didn’t take away the blankets and pillows, didn’t take off the magazines. We talked about this a lot, and I said, ‘Look, guys, if ever we were consistent and reliable, we have to be now. You have to be steady when the fucking sky is the shakiest. We’ve got to be clean, safe, and reliable, and let everybody know it. That’s all we got. That’s our edge in the business.’

Now Continental is chipping away at that as well.

But don’t worry, Continental is happy to spin this announcement so you think it’s some amazing revolution on their part. It wasn’t quite Cranky Jackass-worthy, but still kind of dumb. The release reads “Continental Airlines to Offer Food for Purchase on Select Flights” with a subhead of “Menu will include wide variety of high quality, healthy food choices.” So the spin is basically, yeah we might be getting rid of free food, but we’re replacing it with delicious, healthy, wholesome food that will make you think you’re at a five star restaurant . . . or something like that.

The way it works is this. You will now get a free meal only on flights over 6 hours in length. That’s an interesting cutoff. The 1p flight from Newark to LAX is blocked at 5h56m on Saturday and 6h6m the rest of the week. So will the folks on Saturday not get fed? And no eastbound flight from LA gets even close to 6 hours, so will that mean you only get fed westbound? Either way, only the longest domestic routes will get grub included in the price of the ticket.

I’m sure the food will be better, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have offered both options. That’s what Hawaiian does. They offer a basic meal for free and then you can buy some really high quality stuff if you’d like to trade up. But Continental hasn’t gone that route. I figured they’d be the last to hold out, thanks to their ownership of Chelsea Food Services, the kitchen that puts these meals together. But I guess even that couldn’t sway them to keep feeding people for free.

It’s not the elimination of free meals that really bugs me but rather that Continental is now falling into the same place as everyone else. The free meal was this signal of respect, or something like that. It showed they cared just a little bit more than the rest. Not anymore.

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