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

  1. 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 in Economy Comfort from LAX to JFK on DL, and didn’t realize that part of the new service included a wrap – for free – which was pretty tasty.

    So yeah, I like it. But again, I feel bad for the airlines. Because everyone either complains about whether or not they get food, or how good/bad the food is.

  2. “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 transit point, and what the meal is, determines how likely I am to partake. It’s always good to have the choice though.

    In the Middle East leg, on an early morning flight, I’ve had an apple Danish pastry served, which hit the spot along with a coffee. In UK, on a short domestic leg, I’ve had a croque-monsieur (again early morning) which was a more interesting attempt than the bog standard fayre one comes to expect. The rest of the time it’s been limp sandwiches or just a packet of pretzels. I can understand it’s a trade off though, to serve a full A320 on a less than 60 minute trip is no mean feat.

  3. 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.

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

      1. 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.

  4. 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. The Starbucks Protien Box is a great example, I’d buy that all day long in coach for $7 or $8

    1. 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 back from Mexico that were delicious. I’d totally pay $5-10 for one of those today but unfortunately the ovens probably aren’t even in the 757’s anymore. Sigh.

      1. 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!

      2. 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…

  5. 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.

    1. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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) that used to get a meal now not getting a meal. The ending of plated meals on Eagle flights is also a substantial downgrade–that means a flight like DCA-STL now goes from getting a plated meal to food in a box. Hopefully United’s recent move to extend meal times will have AA reconsider its decision. I will consider switching carriers over stuff like this.

  9. 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 cannot button the napkin to your shirt, it of course, slides beneath the seat and the food ends up on your shirt. After absorbing CO, UA eliminated the most popular food for purchase in the industry, the american hamburger because they did not want to adapt UA’s microwave oven to reheat the burger. Huge loss in catering sales.

    1. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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!

  12. 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!!.

  13. 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 pay extra for meals, but I shouldn’t be charged for something I will not use.

    Technology will accelerate this phenomenon more and more…….now if I could only just pay for the cable channels I actually watch.

    1. 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.

    2. 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?

  14. 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 WIFI that is no different than coach and not free. On sub CO metal, sometimes there is Direct TV (free) but that appears to be stripped little by little (and sometimes on new metal there’s not any), and there is power.

    The issue is not the food itself. It’s larger. It’s “what are you getting in the premium cabin to justify the premium fare”? On an economic justification basis, not much.

    UA: if you don’t make domestic first worth is, no one’s gonna pay the extra $$.

  15. 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 the bread), do it. I don’t need a tray linen and a tray, etc.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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 did get about 18 bags of pretzels so I lived, but you get the idea.
    I guess they just take up to much room, but one could wish……

  19. 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 meal on United… steak (yes they used to serve it domestically) in first… the worst… pizza (no way to cook it completely at altitude).

  20. 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.

  21. 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 my business visits. Tonight as I type this i am in 5A from DTW>LAX and I was surprised that i had a choice of pasta or a beef dish. I chose the beef dish and was very shocked how good and it tasted and how tender the meat was. Is it important to me that the quality is there? Not really. Just having something to eat is what counts.

    I spend approximately 30-40K with Delta a year flying approximately 120-140K domestic. This does not include the rest of the members of my sales team. When I am outranked by other DM’s and am in coach I have come to appreciate the fare in coach on DL. The snack boxes or sliders or even breakfast fare is quite good. Its not stale and the snack options are good.

    I have traveled a lot of domestic carriers in my career and DL by far has been the best at what they offer. Not only from a customer experience but from technology and food. Several months ago due to fare increases into Pittsburgh i was forced by my boss to fly US Air. Luckily i had a 2 segment flight otherwise i would not be sitting here typing this message today. However, my flight from PHX>PIT was by far the worst ever! Even though there was WIFI they did not offer any entertainment like DL does through GOGO on demand entertainment. I was forced to stare at Facebook the entire time. No inflight entertainment or tv monitors. I contemplated several ways to end it all right then and there. Luckily i fell asleep!

    The main article says it correct. For us road warriors its important. For the leisure flyer I’m sure you could give 2 cents.

  22. 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.

  23. 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 off the plane. You never know how long you may have to stand in line at the bag claim or *especially* at the rental counter.

    I don’t miss airline food. It got SO bad before it disappeared completely in coach. I still have nightmares about the last meal I had thrown at me on Continental a few years back. There was a collective moan from all the passengers when an announcement was made that said (I hope I can remember the exact spin…er…words) “Due to the desire of the American public for lighter and healthier fare, you may notice the lunch we will be serving is a little less substantial than you are accustomed to.” blah blah blah. We knew we were in trouble. Sure enough, we were each tossed (and I mean tossed) a paper sack containing a dried-out sandwich with wilted lettuce and a rock-hard frozen orange. I’ve never had a really good experience with business class or domestic first class food, either. Special meals either aren’t offered or seem to be constructed so you’ll wish you hadn’t asked. Prime example: UA “diabetic” meal consisting of yellow goop with chunks of something solid but unidentifiable, with wilted gray salad on domestic first classleg, then more of the same yellow goop with a fresh green salad on international business class leg. United’s slogan should be “arrive deprived.”

  24. 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 BF or F on UA, there is usually some kind of meat (I request it without the sauce of flour, sugar, balsamic vinegar…all converted to sugar in the body) and a butter pat. So, along with the dry salad (unless they offer Caesar or Ranch dressing), that is what I eat…and it satisfies me very well.

    So for me, meals are important (the eggs and sausage or ham for breakfast on all early a.m. flights from MEX on UA are the reason I always travel at that time of day!).

    So are the hot towels, which I get about 80% of the time. They at least give me the illusion of being hygienic so I can eat without too much fear of MRSA infection from the dirty surfaces abounding in every airplane.

    BUT, I always take 8 ham slices, rolled up with mayo, jalapeño or avocado slices, and a slice of cheese, in a Zip-loc bag. If I get a meal with protein, I eat that. If not, I eat a few ham rolls with the Coke ZERO that for now is still free, even in coach.

    Yeah, I was a Boy Scout (“Be prepared.”).

  25. 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.

  26. 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 AA fliers who were used to full meals on a 2 1/2 hour flight. Plus, the only healthy option was the fruit – not really a complete meal for those who don’t like sweet and salty snacks.

    My takeaway: do people book F just for the food? Probably not, but the issue, as others have noted, is one of perception. One, when you upgrade to F, you do so with the expectation of a better overall experience, and going chintzy on the meal doesn’t do much to meet that expectation. Second, I know many AA fliers, myself included to a degree, who have been wary of Doug Parker and his team because of his reputation (deserved or not) as a penny pincher at US Airways. Doing little things like cutting meal service on the AA side to get more in line with the US side doesn’t do him any favors in this regard. Yes, this is an improvement for US fliers, but there are a lot more AA partisans out there, and if the reaction on this flight was any indication, they aren’t terribly pleased by this change.

  27. 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).

  28. 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.

    1. Realist – I don’t update past posts just because the situation changes. I write new posts if I feel like the news is worth writing, but this didn’t make the cut. Clearly there is no pleasing you. I think most people would see this is a positive sign that the airline is listening to its customers and adjusting as it goes. If anyone thinks that every decision is going to be made right the first time, they’re nuts. They key is being willing to realize when mistakes are made and then fix the problem.

  29. 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.

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