What Airlines Spend on Food


It’s time once again for us to talk about airline food. I know, it’s your favorite, right? But this is really interesting stuff. As part of Form 41 data that airlines have to submit to the feds, food expense is broken out. Someone brought this to my attention recently, and I played around with the numbers to get a really interesting chart. Here it is, showing food spend per passenger by airline. (Click to blow it up.)

Food Spend per Passenger by Airline

There are just so many interesting things to see in this chart. Here are my random thoughts.

  • Look at how much money Alaska spent on food in the early 1990s. That’s crazy for an airline that’s mostly short to medium haul flying. Obviously, they changed that significantly in 1993 and now they’re in the bottom half of the pack.
  • United and American have been going in lockstep, as you might expect. They hit their peak on food spend in 2001 and then, completely unsurprisingly, tanked from there.
  • You can really chart Continental’s success here. The airline dramatically slashed food in the early 1990s in its bid to survive. When Gordon Bethune took over and started investing in the product, food spend started to rise and it’s stayed there. Obviously, this number will start to plunge now that Continental has trashed free food in coach. Interesting that the spend is still less on Continental than United. I wonder if First Class has something to do with that?
  • Look at Northwest’s climb at the end of its life. That’s the Delta influence there, but both airlines have stepped up their spending. Much of that is likely related to the airline’s strong, fresh food buy-on-board program.
  • US Airways has always been near the bottom, but much of that may be because it has a much higher percentage of domestic flights than the other legacies. You can see the fight for survival after 9/11. Food spend dropped, but you can also see that food at America West started to rise a little after the merger. Now they’ve found equilibrium at a very low level.
  • The most steady spender on food? Southwest, of course. Those peanuts are cheap.

Fun chart, huh? Too bad we can’t map this to revenue from food sales, but that info isn’t given to the feds.

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25 comments on “What Airlines Spend on Food

  1. Are the spend costs adjusted for inflation or the real figures per year. If we see, United started of at $6 at the start of the last decade, went up to $8 at the start of this decade, and is back to $ at the start of the next decade. However $6 had far greater buying power 20 years ago. Also all airlines are showing an upward trend in spending over the last 2~3 years even during the bad periods of the last 18 months. Have they finally understood that on-board customer experience, of which food is an important part, is important?

    1. I’d also be interestred in the inflation adjusted numbers. Perhaps I’ll put those together if we CF can shoot over his spreadsheet.

      1. These are not inflation-adjusted. These are real spending dollars. I think the upward trend in recent years is likely the expansion of buy-on-board programs and nothing more than that.

      2. Inflation adjusted its even more dramatic. AS’s food costs went from $12.43 per passenger in 2009 dollars to $3.02 per passenger in 2009 dollars..

        WN’s peanut cost stays even flatter..

  2. … and that’s why I bring my own food on board (so long as I can get something decent from shops airside).

  3. I second the question about real v nominal in these amounts. Also, is this net of food-related revenue, given buy on board programs?

    What strikes me here is that AA and UA haven’t actually seen their costs go down much (assuming these are net numbers) despite drastically changing their approach to food in coach. Strange.

  4. You should have said “Click to enlarge” and not “Click to blow up” Now there will be a long cyber delay while the feds search your site and interview all the readers……lol

    Were the cost of pray cards on AS meal trays included as food costs I wonder.

  5. No thanks, I’ll bring on my own food purchased from the terminal. Just remember wich zone is for standing & wich one is for loading!

  6. Count me in with the real/nominal crowd.

    One other data point that I would like to see is that for Midwest/YX. Those guys were legendary for their food offering while we (CF and I) were in college.

  7. These numbers don’t add up. There is no way they are spending that kind of money of food on a per person basis. Are they including buy on board?
    On United for instance: They give meals out on 1st and Biz only during certain hours of the day domestically. They never do coach and yes they give out on international for everyone but if this is an average, let’s say 2/3rds of their passengers in a given year don’t get a meal. Then we’re really saying that they spend more like $27 per actual meal served?

  8. It would be interesting to see Midwest Express (Midwest, now Frontier) on the chart.
    Oh, those were the days, edible meals with real china and silverware, individual salt and pepper shakers, free wine served in stemmed glasses. . . and this was in coach as there was no business class.

  9. Don’t forget that on UA’s Transatlantic and Transpacific flights, everyone gets a full meal AND at the least a snack, which comprises either a light breakfast (yoghurt and a filled croissant) or a sandwich, bag of chips and a chocolate bar. That, together with the full meal probably comes to around $6 or more per passenger. Add to that pretzels with drinks and that’s just for economy passengers. Biz and 1st enjoy two multi-course meals plus mid-flight snacks and, although UA’s food offerings are not competitive with most foreign carriers on the routes it serves, it still has to come out as being in the $25 plus range for Biz and $35 plus for First. I would guess that this must put them at well over $10 per passenger on International – and that’s without wastage. So, to me, the numbers look about right and I’m presuming that they don’t include drinks.

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