American Airlines Tells Flight Attendants: Don’t Hold Flights For Missing Entrées Or Dessert, Just Apologize

American Airlines has invested a lot in its premium products, introducing new and nicer lounges and planning for more and better business class seats. They’ve done more to bring back food, and better food, than United and Delta. And overall their operation has performed better recently than it did prior to the pandemic.

At the same time, old habits die hard. There’s been a lack of clarity for years over whether customer experience matters, or just operational metrics, and whether American is trying to be a premium carrier or a Spirit and Frontier competitor.

So I’m not surprised to see an internal memo going out to flight attendants telling them not to worry about missing catering, customers just want to depart exactly on time and that crew does passengers a disservice when they ensure long flights have food on board.

Dec. 7, 2022
Flight attendants with a CLT sequence

We’ve learned that several flights are taking delays due to catering callbacks for non-critical service items. It’s essential that our flights depart on time, and waiting for additional items or a few missing items, such as entrées, bread, or dessert, should not drive a delay or gate hold.

In short, flights should not be held for missing catering items. If you find that you’re missing an item before the service, please apologize to the customer and offer an alternative, if possible.

Reliability is one of our top goals, and we want to do everything we can to meet or exceed our customers’ expectations. That includes keeping our flights running smoothly, expediting turn times, and ensuring on-time departures. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to your FSM if you have any questions.


This actually runs contrary to something now-CEO Robert Isom told employees. Responding to a flight attendant who got called into a meeting for a reprimand after taking a 14 minute delay when a flight to São Paulo lacked plates, he offered:

So is it appropriate to leave without placeware for international business or first class service? And the answer to that is no, it isn’t ok to do that.

And the pressure you’re getting from somebody that says ‘we don’t take delays for catering issues’ well they’re not talking to the folks that really are looking at the operation from a system perspective.

Small flight delays can have unintended consequences, like running into weather or air traffic congestion, congestion on the ramp, or crew rest issues down the line. Those can compound and lead to missed connections. Leaving on time matters! But in order to leave on time the airline has to get the basics right, not just skip those pieces. And a 5 minute delay isn’t the same as a 50 minute delay (American has often overly focused on the former), especially when a flight might otherwise be projected to arrive early.

Nowhere in the memo to flight attendants does it emphasize that the airline is working hard to prevent miscatering or undercatering from happening in the first place. Nowhere does it talk about the commitment to ensure employees have all of the tools necessary to provide the service that’s expected.

The message that middle management has gotten over the years – and even if this isn’t what is intended today, takes a long time and clear, concerted effort to turn around – is that all that matters is ‘D0’ exact on time departures, with travel experience and customer service something to skip over if necessary to get there. On-time departures are something you get when all of the pieces run properly, not a reason to skip over things like clearing upgrades or making sure promised meals are on board the aircraft.

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, 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. And yet, even with all this B/S going on, AA didn’t even score in the top 5 most punctual air carries of North America. All of that lousy service and poor customer experience and for what, for nothing!!

  2. On time departures, while an important part of operational efficiency, is just one aspect of operational efficiency.

    Catering isn’t a “bonus” that is given to customers out of the kindness of AA’s heart, but, rather, is table-stakes in offering their product.

    I’m surprised the brand management team isn’t pushing back on this more. Southwest has a much more brand loyal following (as well as greater financial metrics that matter) than AA, even though the operational efficiency from an on-time/cancellation perspective appears to be worse than AA!

  3. Reliability includes getting the onboard service you expect

    Gordon Bethune had it right – take it case by case. Read the room – if you’ve got a cabin full of biz travelers in a hurry CLT-DFW, think or ask if some might forgo part of the meal if we get out on time. If it’s a long flight to Honolulu, well think about taking that delay.

    CLT needs to get its act together

  4. The further responsibility and authority get separated in an enterprise, the less successful it is in delivering a product or service. That is taught at better business schools on Day 1.

    Are unqualified unmotivated administrators being hired, promoted and not appropriately supervised? Silly bunnies, if that’s the case.

  5. I was on an AA flight, AUS-ORD. I was sitting in the front row of MCE, near the first class cabin. Lead flight attendant told the first class passengers the breakfast meals were not loaded due to catering issue and asked them to vote:
    1) Delay the flight 10 minutes to load the breakfast meals
    2) Depart on time without the breakfast meals

    Everyone in first class voted to depart on time.

  6. I am going to disagree with the author regarding food on Delta. Yes, I think the economy seats get pretty much “gruel” on international flights. I’ve heard that most US carriers serve “gruel”. However, I flew on Delta One from Minneapolis to London Heathrow last Sunday. Gone are the hot towels, replaced with a cold scented towelette in a plastic wrapper. I had champagne during boarding, the hot nuts are gone though. The meal consisted of a hot corn chowder, a mixed “slaw/green” salad with a good dressing, and HOT roll with butter. My selected entree was the beef short rib with braised carrots, spinach and roasted fingerling potatoes. It was served HOT and was very good. For dessert, I had ice cream with chocolate sauce. For breakfast I was served a fresh fruit bowl, HOT coffee, orange juice and “French toast pudding” which I thought was pretty good too. None of the food served was 4-5 star quality but it was served well and was very tasty. So…food on an airplane, like anywhere else is a subjective thing. I do miss the hot nuts and hot towels, though.

  7. More AA dysfunction. The airline has issues insuring catering is properly loaded, then justifies it by holding schedules over passengers heads. How about being able to properly load what is needed for a flight AND depart on-time? Fix your issues and run the airline properly.

  8. I really appreciate this post, and the responses. Unfortunately passengers only see the end result, not the frustration that flight attendants who still enjoy what we do have to put up with, when all we want to do is give the best service possible without always having to apologize. Thank you for putting this out there.

  9. The memo is correct.

    Gary is wrong, as usual.

    Its a mode of transportation not a restaurant. Catering should be delivered on time and flights should depart on time. But if the former doesn’t happen, the latter still should.

  10. Bob has a point, but let me share this.

    As someone who finally moved from coach to business class, I paid for the food and service. I like getting the food and service.

    I love getting the drinks… Though I love flying I still have a routine,.and, well, don’t mess with the routine and why can’t we get both?

  11. Many times flights are “double catered” for both legs out and back to a hub. So if you get to an outstation, there is no option to fix catering problems.

  12. The answer is to make their catering system work. While AA food is nothing to get excited about it, it does beat going hungry. I have had instances where I missed lunch and counted on getting dinner on the plane only to find out there was no dinner on board. Nothing like getting to a hotel after room service has closed and being hungry.

  13. How typical of AA to punish the pax for their inability to get a plane catered. And they have the audacity to say that we pax would rather depart on time than have something to eat. Pure BS. A delay under 15 minutes isn’t going to bother anyone; the schedules are so padded that it’s not any kind of problem. If I’m up at 430am for a 7am flight across the country in 1B, you can bet that I need something to eat. Airline thinking … incomprehensible.

  14. Happened when I was flying domestic first from ORD. We missing several meals. FA asked for volunteers to not eat. No option of delay

  15. Clt and Phl catering is done in house by AA employees, the fact that they don’t hold them to the same standards as flight attendant performance issues is beyond me. Why should flight attendants have to apologize to guests for another departments failings. This isn’t a one off, ever flight from Saïd bases are catered with missing items or lackluster food. The amount of times catering has catered dropped meals from the truck is beyond me. Fire them all and hire back sky chef

  16. Per latest customer service note, catering is a “complimentary convenience,” and when no such convenience is provided, no compensation is due. 🙂

  17. I’m ok with this. I was on a delta flight that was delayed for 45 minutes for coffee creamer. It almost caused a misconnect in Paris that would have cost 24hrs of travel time. I’d take the on time departure without food every time. The caveat is I don’t eat dinner on east bound TATL and am usually asleep before meal service.

  18. @ Fustrated flight attendant

    AA would love to get rid off the commissary’s in PHL and CLT , but they came with the US merger and they’re unionized ground crew there so they cant

  19. Just last week a friend flying F IND-LAX on AA was asked if they would accept a meal voucher to get food in the terminal as they were short two meals. Problem is they asked this as they were boarding. Creative solution, but maybe ask before you’re getting on the plane (and provide additional compensation).

  20. For a domestic flight, I would totally agree with not holding for catering. However, for any transatlantic flight, or flights to South America, the catering needs to be a priority. The lack of context in the memo will lead to poor results, when a flight attendant reacts passive-aggressively and does not hold for catering meals, causing lots of problems for customers

  21. We’ve tried to tell management this for years. People don’t remember if you left the gate 5 minutes late. What they will remember is when they paid $3000 for a business class seat for us to only say “sorry we don’t have an entree to offer you.” People will remember THAT! From front line staff, I can tell you we are just as horrified as you when it comes to stuff like this. This management team is an embarrassment.

  22. You know it’s an honor to work for airlines. Be grateful and do whatever you need to do to make services exceptional.

  23. I always fly with plenty of food often even sharing with row mates. You never know if meals will be served and being stuck on a 5 hour flight hungry makes for a miserable trip.

  24. I missed my flight for one munit last week and the flight was delayed for one hour. The plane was seated there and they make me wait for the next flight.

  25. Of all the things AA needs to vastly improve, they should start with their terminal at O’Hare. Terrible outdated seating, very few charging outlets available, and almost none of them work. And as for dining options? Chili’s, Macaroni Grill, and fast food. That’s it.

  26. Clt slc on Fri – no bread and no dessert. Fa showed me the memo. Customer Relations gave me (AA Gold AS 75k) 3k miles and my friend nothing

  27. When traveling in F, a meal is VERY important to me. A 10 minute delay is nothing. If it were up to me, I’d instantly fire a manager who instituted a policy of departing exactly on time regardless of the meal situation. Despite what others have said, I have paid for both transportation and the meal I pre-ordered. Now if it’s going to take 30 minutes to get the missing meals onboard, that’s a different story and whoever caused the screw-up needs a day off without pay.

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