The New Domestic Battleground: First Class Meals

When you think of things that make for a good flight, how high on the list is a decent meal? You’ll almost never get a free meal in the back of the bus domestically, but up front, the big three here in the US are now paying close attention to how and when they provide food. Who says competition is dead?

I have to admit, this all seems just a bit silly to me. After all, I’m not a big eater on airplanes. But I can see how some people really do care. If you’re a road warrior, rushing between places all the time, you may not have time to fill up. But do they really care if a cloth is put down on top of the tray table? Apparently some do.

Delta’s current program has been in place the longest. For flights under 250 miles, you get something light like peanuts and pretzels. Then, up to 900 miles you get a bigger selection of snacks. Or, uh “heartier and healthier” as Delta calls them. After that, meals kick in.

American had watched this closely and rolled out its combined program with US Airways. American made the decision to make its program less generous and make the US Airways one more generous. They met in the middle.

The end result is that flights under 700 miles just have a snack. Flights from 700 to 1,000 miles have, there’s that word again, “hearty” snacks, which might include sandwiches. Flights over 1,000 miles have meals.

United, having seen all this, just recently came out with its new meal program. Some parts are the same. Light snacks are for under 220 miles, with hearty snacks above that. But now meals will start at 800 miles instead of 900 miles. Here’s a chart trying to make some sense of all this.

Domestic Meal Table

Does this look complex enough to you? Well, it’s not. It gets way worse than this. Different carriers choose different meal times to determine when they serve meals even within these mileage ranges. And then some flights category jump if they’re deemed worthy.

The airlines create these ranges and then they figure out which markets are more commercially important. American, for example, serves meals on Chicago flights to Boston, Dallas, New York, DC, Denver, and Raleigh/Durham even though mileage-wise they aren’t long enough. (Here’s the full exception list.)

Delta serves food to everybody on the short shuttle flights. And of course, these guys all try to one-up each other on the big transcon routes between New York and LA/SF. Delta throws Seattle into that mix too.

Had enough yet? I didn’t think so. There’s also the fight over what exactly constitutes a meal. They say that American will stop having plated meals on regional partner flights and go to gourmet boxes (whatever that means). At the same time, United says it will get rid of the shelf-stable meal boxes and start having fresh meals on those regional flights.

Is your heading spinning yet? There are plenty more considerations to be made. Should there be cloth napkins? Cloth placemats? What should the salt and pepper holders look like?

I can go on and on, but I won’t. Frankly, what amazes me is the attention to detail when it comes to meals. I always wonder how many people even notice this stuff, but then all I have to do is go to Flyertalk and see how important this stuff is to people.

What do you think? How much do you care about food on airplanes?

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