Food Grows Scarce for Domestic Flyers

Late last month, US Airways said it was transforming its business to a “pay-for-use” model. Next month, the airline will begin charging $2 per soft drink, juice, and bottled water. Coffee will remain $1 until autumn, when the airline plans to upgrade the quality of its brew; then, it, too, will cost $2—though the price will include refills.

Among low-cost carriers, Spirit Airlines already charges $3 for soft drinks and bottled water and $2 for coffee and tea. One passenger on a recent delayed flight reported, “When the plane finally took off, you could not even get water if you didn’t have $3 in cash because the credit machine was broken.”

The new “cash bar” policy is only one of many similar strategies that the majority of U.S. carriers have deployed for in-flight F&B, which already has been scarce since 9/11. Except for Continental Airlines, which still serves complimentary meals on flights over three hours, most legacy carriers provide food strictly on a buy-on-board basis (mini-packs of pretzels and peanuts excepted). Deborah K. Gaffney, director of conference planning for DC-based Tax Executives Institute, recalled from a recent round trip: “Pitiful bag of pretzels. Almonds I brought on board myself. Bagel and coffee I brought on board myself. Water I brought on board myself. Another pitiful bag of pretzels. Diet Coke in a small plastic cup with two tiny ice cubes.”

Another planner reported that on a recent flight, the flight attendants announced they had three choices of meals, “but by the time they got to the back of the plane they only had a few $5 snack boxes left. The flight attendant told us she was given five salads, five sandwiches, and 30 snack boxes for over 180 people on board. She advised we should no longer plan to get food on a flight, but we were welcome to bring on board anything we wanted.”

Still, other planners reported having satisfactory meals without money changing hands—but on international routes.

Janette P. Eng, director of convention and meeting services for Arlington, VA-based Associated General Contractors of America, reported that LAN Airlines (a South American carrier) served “a little snack box that had a pastry, cookie, and chocolate” on a 70-minute flight from Lima to Cusco.

Noted Lisa Meller of Irvine,CAbased Meeting Perspectives Inc.: “I’ve got a group heading to Mexico for their annual corporate incentive next February. What a joy it is knowing that lunch and a full (alcohol) bar is available on board with Mexicana Airlines—one less worry for me as my group gets there and back on travel days!” And on US Airways, Maureen Beck, account manager for SelectMeeting Sites in Elmhurst, IL, was served a full meal while traveling from Barcelona to Philadelphia.

Carriers continue to test new waters in refreshment delivery. Virgin America has taken an innovative approach to F&B service: While regular beverage-cart service is offered, passengers can also order food and drinks through the individual seatback monitors of “Red,” the carrier’s in-flight entertainment system, by selecting from the touch-screen menu, swiping a credit card (Virgin America does not accept cash), and sitting back to await delivery by a flight attendant. One intelligent feature is that as soon as an item sells out, it disappears from the screen to avoid passenger disappointment. (There is also a complimentary self-serve beverage mini-bar in the rear of the plane.)

Also on the international front, Australia’s Qantas, which is launching service between Los Angeles and Sydney or Melbourne in October, will be installing self-serve snack bars in the economy cabin of its giant Airbus A380s. The vending machine-based bars will offer sweets and snacks, fruits, sodas, and bottled water.

Originally published July 21, 2008