How much are U.S. airlines willing to spend on meals in the sky? The era of complimentary hot dinners may be long gone, but there’s still some creativity in the kitchen.
United Airlines just rolled out new menus for domestic flights, pledging to offer “restaurant-quality” food throughout its network. But is that possible, given airlines’ limited food budgets? A look at the latest numbers on in-flight food from the U.S. Department of Transportation show a vast range in what individual airlines are investing in their kitchens. In fact, among the ten largest U.S. airlines that report their culinary expenditures to the government, United is one of the most generous, spending, on average, $6.08 per passenger in 2014, second only to American, where the tab was $6.43 per person. (That’s for all classes of service, domestic and international.)
The average for all the airlines in the sample was $3.61 per person, but that’s because budget airlines like Spirit, which spent a beyond-budget 26 cents a person, get thrown into the mix. Spirit, along with Southwest and Allegiant, don’t serve food at all, except, perhaps, for a bag of pretzels. Others include Delta, which forks over $5.36 per flier; Virgin America, at $3.73 per person; and JetBlue at $1.39.
Now that airlines are in the black again, will customers’ stomachs get some attention?
But DOT’s data also reveals the degree to which airline catering has been on the decline since the late 1990s; average spending among major full-service airlines like American and United topped $8 a passenger in 2001, and the average for all carriers that year was $4.79. You’d have to go a long way back to find a time when U.S. airlines actually competed on the quality of their food, serving steaks to order and freshly baked cookies (think Pan Am in the 1960s). But the reality is that food quality comes down to what you paid for your flight—if you’re flying 14 hours in first class, you’ll eat well. Things went downhill after 2001, as gourmet dining wasn’t exactly a priority for money-losing airlines; the average food spending hit a low of $3.30 per person in 2007. According to the DOT’S Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the average airline spending on food has dropped by about 25 percent since 2001.
Now that airlines are in the black again, will customers’ stomachs get some attention? United’s new food plan gives us hope; the airline is actually serving hot meals in the back of the plane as well. This isn’t the first reboot of its food program—it enlisted The Trotter Project to devise a new “Bistro on Board”—nor is it the only domestic airline getting creative. Alaska Airlines has offered up Cascade brisket chili, grilled cheese, or smoky BBQ chicken sandwiches developed by star chef Tom Douglas. Of course, those economy meals are for sale—the era of free meals in economy class is long gone, aside from on Hawaiian Air—but the addition of real cooked fare is indeed news, especially given the paucity of edible food aloft in recent years. The new selections, which include a “bistro bowl” with braised beef, vegetables, and steamed rice, will start showing up in cabins on November 1. New entrees for United first class passengers will include Spanish paella and mushroom risotto, and on the trancontinental p.s. (premium service) flights, steak and made-to-order sundaes are on the menu.