Continental Ditches Free Food For Flights Under 6 Hours

Continental, Meals

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. / CC BY-SA 2.0

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44 comments on “Continental Ditches Free Food For Flights Under 6 Hours

  1. “Our traditional free-food model has served us well for many years, but we need to change to reflect today’s market and customer preferences.”

    Yes I’m sure customers have been begging to be able to purchase over priced food onboard instead of eating something for free.

    Must be the same people who begged to pay to check a bag instead of just doing it as part of the ticket purchased.

  2. Cranky:
    You hit this one spot-on. Continental was, once upon a time, different. Not knight-in-shining-armor better, but more like McDonalds vs. In-N-Out better. Same product, same basic ingredients, just higher quality and more enjoyable.

    Now, they’re charging for exit row and food, just like most of the other carriers. I used to prefer flying Continental, and not just because I live in one of their hubs and could get a non-stop to pretty much anywhere in the eastern US. There was an attitude that set Continental apart from the pack. With these recent “enhancements” based on “customer feedback”, I’d say it’s safe to say that the crapification of Continental is complete, and now nothing sets them apart from every other carrier competing in the race to the bottom.

    1. “…but more like McDonalds vs. In-N-Out better.”

      Mike T: I hope you meant In-N-Out was on the “better” side.

  3. One could use the old “free” checked bag and food model if fares were high enough. they simply aren’t. Airlines over all still have too many seats chasing too few passengers. despite what DavidSFeastbay and other fliers want, airlines simply can’t provide full service at $49 one-way fares and make a profit. If the fare is $490 one way for the same trip, I can see his point. So..why not spilt the difference … like Frontier does with its “classic” fares? OR once a fare crosses a certain threshold, more and more amenities are included as it goes up.

    America West charged for food for years (and even for headphones for their IFE). So has Midwest (even when they were Midwest). I must say the “pay on board” food has been much better overall than “old” airline food – and I go back long enough to remember all of the jokes about airline food (and it was often pretty bad).

    There’s a middle way between greedy passengers who want everything “free” while paying almost nothing, and paying an “appropriate” fare and getting value for your dollar.

    1. I can understand why they are doing it, but airlines keep saying it’s what their passenger ask for and/or want. They see the others raking in millions on food purchase and checked bags etc so what airline wouldn’t change to get that money also. Can’t blame them.

  4. I have to side with CO on this one. The food in coach was crappy at best. Plus, I’d be surprised if anyone ever decided to fly them based on the fact they’ll get a extremely hot “cheeseburger” or “pizza” in a plastic bag. While a nice to have if you actually picked a flight during “meal time”, if you are running a business that has lost ~$1BB over the last decade, this decision is a no brainier.

    I fly CO more than 100K miles per year, and spending $5-10 on something better than the “cheeseburger” in a plastic bag when I get stuck in coach does not bother me.

  5. Actually I am a big fan of their turkey sandwiches and cheeseburgers in a bag. That means no food even on a PR flight. I am not flying much this year as I am with child but this just means Continental is joint ranks with everyone else now. Charging for Exit rows, no food, ridiculous baggage fees. As an elite none of their changes has affected me and since I get upgraded on most flights this still won’t. but since I will not make elite next year I guess I may start looking for the cheapest flight instead of just the cheapest Continental flight.

    So can airports step up their offerings in the food dept. I am personally not a fan of taking a McD’s burger on every flight, thanks!

  6. Ah yes, CO wouldn’t want to make its alliance partners look bad. Very noble of them.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the alliances actually enhanced the travel experience, but there I go, Apparently, I’ve been setting fares all along, so who am I to insist on full service, too?

  7. Look EVERYONE, we all knew it would just be a matter of time until Continental grabbed the money on the table. Sad, but no surprise.

    For some time now, whenever I fly a long distance I will purchase a SUBWAY sandwhich and take it on board. I have the best in-flight meal and the beverage is normally free. Screw the airline greed and their bad food. There is more then one way to beat them at their own game.

    Consumers – VOTE WITH YOUR DOLLARS! It is the ONLY language the airlines understand!

    1. People are voting with their dollars. They book the cheapest seat available not the airline with the most amenities. People complained for years about how lousy plane food was but then were upset when it was taken away. Doesn’t make sense to give something away if recipient doesn’t appreciate it.

      1. Well Sean, Just remember human nature, you can never make EVERYONE happy.

        However, yes, some people do vote with their dollars, case in point – SOUTHWEST or JET BLUE. Passengers pay less, expect less, and get (generally) great air service at VERY competitive prices.

        Other carriers act like low cost carriers, but charges are right up there in the clouds. THEY CAN’T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS, NOW CAN THEY? Nothing wrong with trimming service to become more competitive, but – damn it – reduce fares as well to be fair! The paying public notices these things (as if they don’t know).

        1. reduce fares to be FAIR? Have you noticed the PRICE OF OIL, lately?
          Does the paying public notice that? Does it notice that you can fly cheaper then driving?

          Fuel Stop: Oil & Jet Fuel Prices (March 15)
          WTI Crude Oil: $79.80 (price/barrel), down $1.44
          One Year Prior – $46.25 (price/barrel) up $33.55

  8. I think I’m lost. How is trying not to lose another $1BB in this decade being greedy?

    It seems as if people would rather get (very) crappy food over airlines actually being able to run as a sustainable businessed.

    Just remember, the more airlines fail, more consolidation occurs EQUALS less competition and higher ticket fares.

    I’d rather a lower ticket price and buying a $6 sandwich any day!

  9. 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.

    Interesting how a LEGACY CARRIER reduces service to MATCH THE LCC’s (low cost carriers) and everyone is up in arms over the disappearance of food.
    For decades, the airline industry competed on SERVICE. Then, LCC’s came along and the FLYING PUBLIC supported the LOW FARES that didnt come with amenities.
    I say, Continental is simply meeting that expectation of the AMERICAN flying public and in turn, becoming a more competitive airline with reduced COSTS. They fly millions and millions of passengers per year. Just how many of those millions should they feed?

  10. I have been a loyal CO customer for years out of EWR. I always thought they offered a great product compared to their competition. Of course the food they served was never any good but the fact that they still served free meals showed that they wanted to be different. Now, CO might as will merge with United…all the small “perks” (free meals, free exit row seats for non-elites and no baggage fees) that are now gone will make them no better then the rest of the legacy carriers…if CO wants to act like a LCC, it’s time to check out JetBlue.

  11. Now that an ex-United exec is running Continental, it’s turning into United. Bob Six must be turning over in his grave (again). It’s a race to the bottom.

  12. Only historically has anything been free on the airlines, and it was only time before they charged. Hotels don’t give free food. Theaters entertain you, but don’t transport you. Airlines are transportation. That is it. Don’t get caught up in the fees and charges as if they are a surprise. Continental and other airlines do what they need to do to survive. We don’t often give away products in businesses we are in, why should the airlines. You purchase a seat on a jet to get from point A to B…that’s it.!

  13. I’m waiting to see what will be offered for sale….having booked an HNL/Joburg RT on CO in November. I hope they will use credit cards as most do now.

  14. Wasn’t a fan of CO ever since they nearly screwed me over with a delayed flight in 2007 but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised when my gf and I were served a meal on an EWR-LAS flight in early 2009. Combined with their move to Star Alliance I figured I now have a decent way to fly cross-country whenever I make my annual trek to visit the family in SE USA.

    Oh well. :(

  15. I look at this way:

    Continental is just making my decision to fly Southwest whenever I can easier. Keep racing to the bottom, guys…

  16. I am worried..yes worried, just how far do we go to keep airfares cheap, and I see a revolt coming, If you have read Sully”s book (the guy that landed in the Hudson), the main theme that came across is the very complete destruction of the airline industry (pay, maintenance, profitablity) in the chase for survival, Now even Sully has walked away, and we need people with his experience, the rest of the airline personal are revolting for a better anything, but worse good people are finding work in other industries with better pay and conditions and these are the very people that the industry needs to solve its complex problems, all we see is airlines going to the wall, but the writing is on the wall…its time to change.

  17. I am not upset about this one bit. I mostly fly UA, and I REALLY like their buy-on-board menu. Sometimes I fly CO (as it’s in the star alliance now), and they didn’t even have any food i could buy on IAH-SFO. That’s a pretty long flight. Also, that nasty burger-thing I got on my SFO-EWR flight was GROSS. I would MUCH RATHER have dropped $10 on a decent salad or sandwich… or… just bought something at the SFO food court to carry on.

    So in principal, I’m sad for CO. This was a nice thing for them to hang on to. But in reality, their “food” was GROSS.

    Also, even more interestingly, this puts them even more in line with UA for a possible merger….

    1. Will continental be RAISING fares now since OIL has risen 33 DOLLARS over last year?

      Fuel Stop: Oil & Jet Fuel Prices (March 15)
      WTI Crude Oil: $79.80 (price/barrel), down $1.44
      One Year Prior – $46.25 (price/barrel) up $33.55

  18. “Domestic Flights over 6HRs” read: AK and HI

    Nobody should be surprised by this move, what’s disappointing is that it was low hanging fruit and could have at least been announced along with a more value-adding or creative cost saving/revenue generating initiative. The fact that it wasn’t is disconcerting (as far as perception of CO mgmt is concerned)

    1. Not even AK. I had started to increase my business on CO since they did feed you on long flights, and I do have business that takes me to both AK and HI (from Texas, meaning CO is really the best long distance carrier for me). Yes, the food was ok at best, but it was there (and none of it was really as nasty as some of the negative comments indicate, and my standards aren’t too low…). However, they basically only fly to AK through SEA now, so that is not a 6 hour flight. Maybe in the summer they will pick up that direct IAH – ANC flight again.

      1. Yeah, the IAH-ANC nonstop is seasonal, but I can’t find anything that defines when it actually starts each summer (May? June?). Also, looks like there will be new service to ANC via PDX from IAH instead of just SEA this summer also.

        1. It looks like this year the nonstop from Houston starts on May 13 and ends on September 29. Not sure if that’s the usual for them or if that changes from year to year.

          1. Seems a lot of airlines don’t serve Alaska from interior points except for the late spring/summer months when they are taking cruise ship passengers to/from ANC for those summer cruises that stop and start in Alaska.

  19. I wondered when this would happen. Continental claims to be saving $35 million a year by cutting free food. It’s a simple numbers game – if your $35 million expenditure per year doesn’t attract $35 million worth of revenue, away it goes. If passengers were beating down the door to fly Continental for the food, it would be one thing, but they’re not. It’s a “Hey, we kinda like it.” proposition, but not a “Hey, we kinda like it to the point where we’ll pay more for a ticket on Continental.” proposition.

  20. When I flew JetBlue JFK/ LAS I baught food at LAS airport going home & braught a sandwich from home on the way over. The food was better than anything I would have received on board the plane.

    Although I did fly Contenental EWR/ LAX & FOOD WAS SERVED.

    My advice, bring your own food.

  21. Interesting thought that anybody would switch to Southwest over this. I fly them on occasion and they offer nothing. Not even seat assignments. As long as the traveling public (us) want the cheapest tickets possible, that need will be met. The airlines will continue to cut, cut, and cut where needed, to stay in business at what are often ridiculous prices. AS a nation, no matter what we say, we choose the cheapest option possible, especially airfares and then complain that there no “extras”.. Free is gone….

    1. As a nation we do not always choose the cheapest option. The second most expensive purchase will be a car. Americans do not choose cheap cars. As far as airlines, look at Jetblue. People will pay extras for TV, food/ snacks, etc. What Americans don’t like is to be nickeled and dimed. We hate that.

  22. Further along the transmogrification of CO into UA, they’re raising booze prices $1 to United’s. I just hope I don;t have to pay for it on an international flight as UA pax do.

    1. I didn’t pay for booze in Y on my UA flight in Feb (lhr-iac).

      CO is a shockingly bad airline, and all this talk of mergers with UA is distressing me. I think a switch to Air Canada beckons.

      1. That’s one thing about living in Canada. If you are taking a domestic flight, the choice is almost always pretty stark: choose between one legacy carrier, or one low-cost carrier. I will be flying Westjet for the first time ever in May, so it will be interesting for me. A funny thing about AC is that you could be flying 2 1/2 hours from Winnipeg to Toronto and just get a coke, but often when flying a short puddle-jump on Jazz from, say, Montreal to Quebec, you may actually get snacks, like one bag of salty snacks and a couple of cookies in addition to the drink.

  23. I still don’t get it. Airlines seem to be playing the game of “finding the formula” where they limit their flights but try to get as much money out of every seat and every passenger. It’s like the auto industry did when they decided that if every knob in every model they produced was the same color–instead of selling more cars–they would make a profit. Volume equals profit. As long as the airlines make it a crappy experience to fly, more people will not get on their planes and they won’t turn things aroung.

  24. P.S. Why are planes compared to buses and trains? Airlines historically fed people because passengers are captive on a plane; traveling with food went out in the 19th century. Buses make rest stops and then you can buy food. Traditionally trains had dining cars that you could go to for real meals; many still have snack cars where you can sit or stand to eat. And there’s enough space on trains to bring a family sized cooler.

  25. So it’s BYO. The other passengers will love my liverwurst and liederkranz sandwich (with onions, of course)! yum!

    Do I have to smuggle it onboard in my shorts??

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