American Airlines’ Lounge Food Strategy: Small Plates Make Big Mess

I flew out of Chicago O’Hare on Thursday and it was interesting how the dedicated PreCheck security line was backed up – while the checkpoint mere feet away, with both PreCheck and standard screening, had absolutely no one waiting for PreCheck at all. When there’s a long screening queue always check the other security lines before committing to wait.

On arrival at the airport two days earlier I picked up a sandwich from Tortas Frontera, so I skipped it on this visit. Heading straight to the American Airlines Admirals Club it struck me just how copious the food offerings are… at Delta Sky Clubs, where you’ll find beef, chicken, salads, and sandwiches and many more options as well, all complimentary for guests.

American Airlines sells food in its Admirals Clubs and offers a much more modest spread.

This is what food looks like in the afternoon at American’s main Chicago O’Hare Admirals Club. It’s their food after increasing investment in the product to support an annual fee increase for the Citi Executive card the comes with lounge membership.

Even so, American Airlines takes to heart the admonition from its CEO, upon assuming the role not to “spend a dollar more than we need to.” They use very small plates, to limit the amount of food that guests take.

The problem is that the plates are so small that it’s almost impossible not to make a mess. If you take more than a cracker, a cherry tomato, or a single piece of lettuce at a time some of the food is bound to spill over beyond the plate. And buffet areas get messy. Here’s the floor in front of the buffet:

While American holds down its food cost, they make the spaces themselves less pleasant and drive up their labor costs from the need to constantly clean the area. It’s not even clear how much money they save as a result.

I suppose I should be grateful. If American invested in food the way that Delta does, more passengers might take the card (the idea!) and use the lounges, considering it worth doing so. And then they’d be more crowded, so less pleasant for me.

I keep it for the amazing agents in the Austin club, and for assistance during irregular operations. And I live with the more meager offerings than you find from Delta and even from United. However the cost-saving efforts with small plates, causing a constant mess in their clubs, is the most American Airlines thing ever.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I’ll concur on the Admirals Club food offerings. What bothers me, looking at it with an eye of someone who used to audit stations for an airline, is also the lack of consistency in appearance between Clubs on their buffets (does it count as a buffet if there’s only two items?). Some have things like the meatballs in a proper serving dish (like those DL uses for hot food). Others I’ve been to, namely BNA and STL, have it all just dumped in one of the same warmers they use for soup. It just doesn’t look proper and probably helps contribute to the mess. At BNA last week, they had the salad/cheese/hummus and such in a tiered display… with the drippy dressings at the top. I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly care for pairing balsamic dressing with cheddar cheese cubes. At least the places with paper plates, the plates have a sort of lip around the edge. It’s sad that is preferable to the “real” stuff.

  2. @John
    What a nasty thing to say. Are you so down, that you get off by trying to take someone down with you?! You are an embarrassment for the human race and everything that is wrong with society today. If you lack any self worth, try to get help, don’t try to put others down, it won’t make you feel any better.

  3. In October due to kitchen “remodeling” the AA Lounge between C&D in Charlotte featured lots and lots of little baggies of snacks instead of any “warm” food or salad selections. Yes, United Clubs have much better food selections than the Admirals Clubs.
    It would be informative if someone was able to “leak” statistics from American and/or Citi on the number of people dropping the AA Advantage Card due to the increase in cost and lower benefits, and how many are still paying the $175 fee for 3 authorized users and $175 for each additional authorized user. If there were 200,000 base users of the AA card in 2023, generating $90 million dollars (@ $450 ea.) they would need to keep 151,000 plus base users to “break even.” Will these numbers ever become public knowledge?

  4. I’m probably in the minority but I don’t really expect much of the food offerings in domestic lounges. A little snack is fine. A free drink or two is great depending on the time of day.

    Even at some of my favorite international lounges like Qantas first LAX and Cathay first in HKG and LHR I rarely eat the very good food. I’m about to spend the next 12 to 14 hours sedentary on a flight and don’t need a calorie load ahead of time.

    Now some good champagne…now you’re talking.

  5. Complaining about small plates is petty. Its a lounge, not a restaurant. The offerings are limited, but you have a few snacks to eat before you board. It is not a place to hang out in for an afternoon.

  6. @Tom – agree completely. Those that decide they want to pig out and make a meal of something that was only every supposed to be snacks are pretty sad. There are way too many people that will just keep eating – that is why you hear so many fat Americans talk about “portion size” but don’t hear that in the rest of the world where people are healthier and don’t load up on cheap, fattening food like Americans do.

  7. Just like carrying an empty water bottle through the TSA check, now some people will be carrying their own disposable plates in their hand carry luggage. Really a step forward(sarcasm).

  8. To be fair, that looks like the old (not yet upgraded) F&B at ORD. It’s exactly the same thing they have at JFK- and that lemon chicken dish is truly inedible. At the same time, the upgraded food I saw recently at LAX, while looking somewhat better, also looked barely edible. It’s a shame that even the United Clubs have now surpassed the Admirals Club when it comes to F&B.

  9. I agree completely, Gary. I understand that it is a lounge and not a restaurant. And expect small appetizer sized plates. But the new plates are on a whole new level. They are comically small. They are not functional at all.

  10. Love your posts and strong opinions, Gary. I may not always agree with all of them, but I certainly respect you. Sorry you have to deal with rude readers like @John.

  11. I too was disappointed with American Airlines lounges and first class. It’s okay but overpriced and I dropped my Citi AAdvantsge card. The American Airlines staff is incredible on all levels. Their CEO and management team I can do without

  12. AA “sells” food in their lounges…except when I was told recently, in DFW (of all places!), that they do normally sell food but could not for a bit due to “staffing shortages”….staffing shortages to run the TurboChef oven and give me a bag of chips???

    OK AA!

  13. I’m within 6% of ideal body weight, I often make a meal from lounge offerings. Some of my meals are relatively small, (unfortunately) I like junk and snack foods, really like getting something that’s perceived to be free.

    I carry reusable plastic utensils in my carry-on, primarily for environmental reasons. I’m well aware that the effect of my NOT using (and disposing) utensils is miniscule to non-existent, it helps me feel better that I’m slightly less contributing to the destruction of our planet. Maybe I will consider adding a reusable plastic plate to my carry-on. I carry an empty 16 oz water bottle through security which is filled prior to boarding or sometimes used in a lounge, don’t like getting ripped off and environmental reasons.

    The comment about Gary’s dining habits could very easily be viewed as a (somewhat rude) health warning.

  14. Delta’s use of small plates at say its main MSP lounge seems to add to longer buffet lines and slow things down generally in the lounges. It also may exacerbate lounge crowding as people have to spend more time going back to the buffet to get food and thus linger in the lounge a bit longer than would otherwise be the case.

    If they cut down free alcohol in the lounges, wouldn’t that lead to less crowding and shorter lounge visits?

  15. Was at the Admirals Club at ORD, L gates on Thursday. Food was minimal but the lounge wasn’t crowded which is my top preference as opposed to other lounges with lines waiting to enter.

  16. John,

    Let’s have some respect for the fundamental human challenges individuals face, as every individual has their own challenges — not always entirely under their own easy controls — and take on how to face them. Your personal attack of this nature reflects poorly upon you.

    If you want to challenge the blogger, challenge what they say or do rather than who they are. If you want to be your best self and make a useful point and be informative.

  17. BA and AY both have small plates. I have 30 AA plates that I got in Provincetown from the 70s and they are still small. When I was in OZ F lounge the had lobster thermidor Who wants to eat that before a 10hr flight

  18. @John. I didn’t know that Gary asked for your opinion. Opinions are like…..well you know. We’ve all got one. You think Gary could afford to miss a few meals? What makes you think that? What makes you think?

  19. May not be great but least it’s open and accessible unlike centurion or delta lounges. I’ll take it.

  20. The lemon chicken is quite good.

    But I agree, there was no need to change the plates. The other ones were fine. How much did they spend to enhance the plates?

  21. once upon a time clubs were exclusive somewhat private and had fairly premium offerings
    Now they are a crowded extension of coach with subpar offerings of poor quality
    what i would expect if I was homeless going to eat in a soup kitchen
    Between greedy high annual membership fees and lines of people waiting to get in there is simply nothing elite about the experience.Much happier to sit for free at the gate coming from a great restaurant outside the airport typically and skip the train wreck where an agent cant even inform you flight is boarding without you
    Its a hard pass for me except abroad where there are some exceptional experiences EX Qantas First in Sydney etc
    I cut up my Admirals club membership during the pandemic happily and followed that with cutting up my Platinum Amex with Centurion lounge slightly better but also happy to live without being raped with excessive annual fees and declining benefits

  22. AA Admiral Club is no longer what it used to be. Heck, I wanted to get a bag of chips at yeh LA club and was told it was $5.00. Talked about nickel and dime. Already considering other club options.

  23. Funny how Delta & United have no problem offering larger portion sizes in their ‘lounges’ where plenty of customers would like a full meal.

  24. @Matt. I concur, but you failed to mention that as a result, they are able to charge premium prices.

  25. It’s AA, what do you expect? Their motto is “We can’t wait to cheAApen the experience some more”

  26. I completely understand the disappointment/frustration at paying a premium for a service and not receiving. The simple answer is to stop paying. In most major airports there are a number of food and beverage establishments. It’s an airline/airport not a Golden Corral buffet.

  27. AA food service is abysmal. Whether in the lounges or in the air. Even First Class international is nothing compared to what it was prior to US Air merger. Have an upcoming First Class trip DFW-LAS and went to reserve meals. The choices were gross. I used to get the fruit and cheese plate because it was the least worst choice but they have quit offering it on many flights. The lounge food is very variable and always with few choices. You are spot on about the mess. In many clubs they practically keep one person busy cleaning the food service area. I am captive to AA for flying because I fly out of a regional airport but one thing I have thought more and more about doing is giving up my AA credit card and going to an American Express or Chase card so I can access their clubs. Friends tell me their clubs are very nice with great food and drink offerings.

  28. American Airlines Admiral Club really stinks in Phoenix airport! Tiniest one I’ve been in and not enough room to seat passengers waiting for next flight and recoup from long flight in. Highly disappointed to see this!

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