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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42 Comments on "The New Domestic Battleground: First Class Meals"

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Neil S.
I don’t envy airlines here. (Actually, I don’t envy them in most regards – weather, crazy passengers, etc.) Sometimes I’m running for the gate so the meal helps, even on a short flight, as I may have been going from meeting to meeting all day, then in a cab to the airport without time to grab something. Sometimes the meal helps because even if I do have time at the airport, the line for food is often too long – and moving too slowly – to get something before I board. Sometimes the meal is a complete surprise. I was… Read more »
“But do they really care if a cloth is put down on top of the tray table? Apparently some do.” According to an article I read earlier today, tray tables are apparently a permanent home to MRSA, so I could see why one may want to cover these petri dishes with a cloth. I’m currently in the Middle East, and travelling means I either have a short hop at the beginning or end of my trip. Depending on the time of day, how likely I am to have eaten, and what sort of time there is to change at the… Read more »
Sanjeev M

If people these days are paying for first class, then a better meal is warranted. Granted its very hard to serve something appealing to the diverse American palette.

I always thought it would be a better idea to give F class access to the lounge, serve full meals in the lounge, and do minimal service on board. In Europe the “Club” class still gets access to the lounge. Food on the ground will almost always taste much better and is much cheaper to do than packing stuff onboard the carts.


What if there’s no lounge at your airport? What if there is one, but you don’t have time for a meal there?


I got food (hearty snack, I think United would call it) on a 45 min LH regional flight even though I had just spent an hour in the Senator lounge.

As my better half always says, “the flight is 5 hours, can’t you go without eating for 5 hours?” Of course my answer is… No. I dunno, I ride in the back of the bus, and I pack a lunch if I know my flight crosses my mealtime, or I pay for crappy overpriced airport food. If they could find the magic way to sell better food onboard (cereal and milk?, Salami And Brie? Pizza by the Slice?) So few get to ride up front, I wish they could improve the food in the back. Thats all. More Snack Boxes.… Read more »

United serves what is essentially the “Starbucks protein box” in the back during breakfast hours.

I agree that the options in the back of the bus are abysmal and I’ve been on some LOOONG flights where cheese and crackers just isn’t going to cut it. Several years ago SY served cheeseburgers. They were terrible but it was the effort that counted and I flew them for that service. Meanwhile I fly DL to the Caribbean (long flights from MSP) and get squat. For all the people that griped about coach class meals from the 80’s/90’s I appreciated them and wish we could go back. Last I recall was NW served hot hoagies on a flight… Read more »

Nearly a decade ago I visited Honduras. At the time, the government recommended that people deep fry everything, to ensure that the population got enough calories (very different from the US). My host steered me away from such monstrosities, but on my flight back to IAH (in coach), Continental treated me to a Honduran delicacy — a deep-fried sandwich!


CO served that weird cheeseburger in the back up until at least 2010. It helped if you were running gate to gate to know you would get something… And my lunch choice on the UA flight in F right now is … Drum roll… A cheeseburger with tortilla soup…


What amazes me is that so many people board with a huge bag of McDonald’s or what not, eat 2,000 calories of food during the boarding process at their seat and still eat every crumb that’s offered in FC, even when it’s a 2,000 calorie meal.


I’m in F 90% of the time (Exec Plat/AA) and I almost never see outside meals brought onboard to that cabin, which is one (among many, many,) reason I work that hard to get the upgrades. When the foil unravels from 50 or 60 greasy food-court lunches or dinners minutes after departure (or sooner) the cabin smells like a souk.


I may be unusual, but when I travel, I really don’t put a lot of stock in the food I get on board. My main concern is getting from point A to point B as easily and / or quickly as possible, safely, reasonably on-time, and with my luggage.

When I want to get somewhere, I fly, drive, take the train, etc. When I want a meal away from home, I go to a good restaurant.


“gourmet boxes (whatever that means)”

The return of Bistro Bags? Haha.

Sanjeev M

Or picnic baskets like Gordon Ramsey does at LHR T5.


If you pay a premium price (F class) what else would you be paying for? The additional legroom that is virtually gone at this point? Boarding the plane first? Yes, meals are important…especially on longer (transcon) flights.

I am a frequent first class flyer, and the meals are important to me. I often will have meetings through 5:15p, rush to the airport for a 6:30p flight that gets me into my destination at, say, 10:30p or so (original time zone). Being able to eat on the plane and not have to worry about finding a place to eat, late, in my destination really helps. I am disappointed with the new AA meals policy. While I realize it is more generous for US flyers, it is a downgrade from the original AA policy, with many flights (like DCA-MIA)… Read more »
Flying first class comes at a high cost and the service level needs to be first class as well. On a recent AA international flight YEG-DFW, four and one half hours, breakfast in first was a choice of corn flakes or oatmeal (the oatmeal was warm). The previous month on another AA international trip, SAL-DFW only three and one half hours, breakfast was fabulous… choice of meats, eggs, pastries, juice, fruit, etc. real first class. I do not understand the inconsistency. UA has removed the button hole from the first class napkins and cut the size in half. Since you… Read more »

As to inconsistency, that’s easy – there is no caterer (LSG/Gate Gourmet) in YEG, so all flights are forced to offer only shelf-stable options.


As long as the entitled class does not interfere in the safety of everyone quibble to heart’s content
Or fly steerage and donate the difference to those in need. What a concept.


I like food, meals, what have you. And of course, I can see it as a nice marketing tool. But, does everything have to be so complicated? Like who’s going to get what, why, when? But, in the airline industry, I guess, everything has to pass a complication test. If travelers could easily understand it, why are we doing it? Get the lawyers to review it again!


People bitched when there were meals for everybody – and they bitched when there weren’t. They’ll complain about the content, the time whenever it is served ,and on, and on, and on. Give me a dog (a 4 legged one) any day!!.

I recently flew BWI-PHX on SWA which, of course, was meal free, except for 2 or 3 visits by the attendants during the flight with snacks. Granted, that is a long flight without a real meal, however, I have come around to believe in the a la carte model, now the standard at airlines like Spirit. Nearly every passenger stepping foot onto an airplane has a unique set of circumstances that they are bringing with them (baggage, funds, physical size, etc.). To treat them all uniformly is outdated. Even when flying airlines with first class, I would be willing to… Read more »
David M

That’s the thing that I don’t like about flying transcon on Southwest. They don’t even give you the option to buy a meal on board. So it’s either bring your own or buy at the airport.


But that’s where WN has “won”… they have been effective in setting expectations. So people KNOW they get nada on WN.

But when offering a “first class” product, don’t you agree that it SHOULD be FIRST CLASS and not Economy + 3 extra pretzels?

UA 1K flyer, for 16 years. The issue is not the quality of the actual food (although on UA they’re really just prettying up the coach menu and in some markets adding a few enhancements on top of that). No one I know takes a domestic flight in first FOR THE FOOD. The issue is “I have paid $1000….$950….$1500….” etc for this first seat experience. Other than a more comfortable seat, there’s really not much I get to justify the extra cost relative to coach. On sub UA metal, generally speaking, there’s no a) video, b) power; and cometimes there’s… Read more »
Yes, meals are important, especially in First: + Meals make the flying experience more special, especially in F + You may not have had time to eat elsewhere if you rushed to make the flight or there were any hang-ups + I want something healthy and tasty. That may not be what everyone wants and it may not be cheapest to provide. I don’t care. I want healthy and I want tasty. Airlines please listen. + Substance is more important to me than form. If healthy and tasty costs more and you have to delete the bread plate (and even… Read more »
David SF eastbay

I’d rather be handed a box with cold storage food in it then deal with flight crews trying to heat up meals and seeing how bad they can look when served.

Via hub passengers many times don’t have time to get something to eat so while each flight segment may not fit an airlines meal schedule, it can be a long day with no food.


My flying is usually for vacations and such. I’ve come to understand that when I fly in the back, I must pack my own meals and snacks. But if I’m paying the premium, I’d like to be treated well. I enjoy the meals, especially those on the European carriers.

It seems to me they would make a KILLING if they could stock said “Bistro Boxes” and sell them in Coach. I usually am good about packing my own food, but I can think of 2x occasions where it just didnt happen. CLT-SFO where delay+flying the long way ended up being something like 8.5 hours on an a320 with the door closed. No food options at all. Some other flight (90% sure it was American) Starved, no food, they were selling a “bistro box”, but by the time they got to me in the back, they had none left. I… Read more »
Like dxs5651, I have been a 1K flyer for many years on UA (as well as a 1 million miler). Do meals make a difference… you bet!! Especially on longer flights! A couple of years ago I was flying SFO-ORD in UA first just after a major snowstorm in Chicago. We had a very nice meal up front. When we arrived in Chicago, there were no gates available so we sat in the “penalty box” for over 3 hours. Everyone in coach looked like they were ready to draw lots to see who should be eaten first :). The best… Read more »

I flew WN SAN-BWI a couple of years ago… out of SAN gate 1. For those unfamiliar with SAN, gates 1 and 2 have their own security screen from the gates in the rest of the airport, so the only options for food there are whatever the newsstand happens to be carrying.

5.5 hours of eating nothing but Bugles and Mini-Oreos. I would have paid a handsome sum for anything like a snack box on a flight like that. I understand it’s WN, but still.

As a DM for several years and who gets RU’d about 85% of the time who travels from LAX to the Northeast every other week its quite important to me if when i take a later flight that flight has meal service. I can say that i appreciate the healthy and sometimes non healthy fare on the short hops between city>hub that Delta offers. On my final leg whether it be DTW, ATL or MSP to LAX having the late night (7:30) mean which used to consist of a sandwich was very important considering that i mainly go A>B after… Read more »

Of the top 3 areas on an airplane that has the most germs … arm rest, tray table #1, and of course the door knob on the bathroom (keep that in mind when you wash your hands and then grab that knob to get out) …. yes you want to have a placemat as a shield.

I’m diabetic, so I have to keep in mind when I travel to eat something every time I have enough time to grab whatever is available, even if it’s McDonalds or Burger King at double the street price, even if I’m not really feeling hungry at the moment. I also keep containers of glucose tablets in my pocket as well as in my backpack for when my stomach can’t handle grease and onions, or if there’s no time to eat. Depending on my knowledge of my destination airport’s bag delivery time, I sometimes even eat as soon as I get… Read more »
Dr. Stan De Loach
Like BIBLIOBEAR, I also have diabetes mellitus (DM), for 45 years now (since I was very young). To avoid any of the complications of DM, I don’t eat any carbohydrates (bread, fruit, pasta, rice, tortillas, cookies, potatoes, flour products, etc.), except for green vegetables. I travel in BusinessFirst or First on UA, about 95% of the time, forking out the money basically for the meal, especially on international flights, which almost all of my flights are. So, for me, I don’t care about the sandwich or pretzels or juice. It is PROTEIN and FAT that matter. In the meals in… Read more »
jonathan reed

Let’s nor forget that Hawaiian Air serves meals in the back of the bus to and from Hawaii and they are good quality and they are free.

So I just experienced the “new and improved” AA meal service on a flight from MCO-DFW. The “hearty snack” is a big joke. The “sandwich” was a prepackaged contraption with a roll-sized piece of bread and a few small morsels of meat and cheese. Frankly, I’ve had better sandwiches out of the airport vending machines. The other choices from the basket: a handful of bananas and apples, some Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies, and some salty potato chips. Now, I happen to like Milano cookies, and the banana was at least nice and ripe. But this is a huge downgrade for… Read more »

You forgot on the trans-con routes, AA throws in Miami-Los Angeles with the enhanced service (which on AA means made-to-order sundaes and a third meal choice).


Brett, I notice you haven’t updated this post now that Parker/Kirby rolled back these changes last week after receiving blowback (and it was substantial from what I heard) from premium customers. Basically they had to backpedal and return to the standards established and promoted by legacy AA management during the meal alignment process, but shot down by the smart guys in US Airways management. Give them credit for not being pigheaded and listening to their customers, but maybe they should learn to listen to the people who had been running something other than an LCC.

Tender Rat

I flew 1st class on United on a 950+ mile flight that was right over the lunch period, and there wasn’t any lunch service. The cabin crew fed themselves, as one would expect on such a flight. It sure smelled good too. Would have liked to have got me some of that.