American Airlines Will Bring Back Real Meals In First Class Next Month

Like other airlines, American Airlines reduced inflight service during the pandemic. They blamed Covid but it was at least as much about cost. There wasn’t much premium business to compete for.

Alaska Airlines did a good job bringing back food this summer but is rolling that back for January 2021 because flight attendants don’t want to do the service and they’re prioritizing operational reliability in the face of mass cancellations.

United Airlines is doing alright with their meals and is bringing back warmed nuts and coursed meals to business class. But while American Airlines has done more for passengers inflight overall than Delta, they’re lagging behind the industry.

American blamed supply chain. The flight attendants union has been against asking cabin crew to heat meals. They blamed Covid-19, as though galley ovens are a vector of spread for the virus.

We were supposed to see improvements this fall. They put their boxed meals on trays to prepare for the return. And while pilots have started seeing hot meals, customers on domestic flights – other than premium cross country flights – have not.

There’s only so many shrink-wrapped turkey sandwiches I can look at. I usually pass when offered this, but trust me the vegetarian option ‘pimiento cheese sandwich’ is much worse.

However this appears to finally be on the cusp of changing. Last month a spokesperson told me, “We are getting close and I’ll have more to share on the onboard dining after the first of the year.” Now they’re saying that “we still don’t have any plans that are final quite yet.” However aviation watchdog JonNYC shares that more and better service is expected to start rolling out in February.

During summer 2020 the airline’s Senior Vice President of Flight Service declared that old-style meals would never return and that the pandemic was an opportunity for a “reset,” to introduce something “more modern” but that “still has a premium feel.”

That executive is no longer at American. CEO Doug Parker is stepping out of his role. When Oscar Munoz took over at United he set an employee and customer-friendly tone by traveling the system to listen to employees, and by introducing product improvements. There were ‘quick wins’ like Illy coffee and stroopwafels, and longer-term promises like greenlighting a huge investment in their business class.

Meals are an opportunity for a quick win for the new airline CEO. This hasn’t been an area of focus in the past, but that’s precisely why doing a nice job now would help with the narrative of finally focusing on customer needs.

What American Airlines offers domestically today is not a first class product, and it’s often not worth the price increment that’s asked. They need to fix the value proposition of the product. Isom has said they need “to figure out how to make [the cabin configuration of their A321s and 737s] work best.” They have less space up front than before.

They can solve a customer pain point – business airport food vendors, short connections and delays, not enough time for customers to get a decent meal on their own – by offering something that customers traditionally expect from a first class product.

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. Wow. I never thought I would see the day when American is surpassing Delta. Delta is just horrendous. The wine is at most $5 wine. Barefoot is better than what Delta serves. Completely undrinkable. The advertised “meals” are a box and are barely bigger than an appetizer. Snack baskets are nonexistent.

  2. I had a surprisingly decent breakfast on AA PHL-CUN 2 weeks ago with a full lox board – plenty of smoked salmon, a sliced hardboiled egg, capers/onions/tomato, cream cheese, and a bagel that, while not great, did pretty well for being a packaged bagel.

    Was pleasantly surprised given the stories of the gas station sandwiches people are mentioning on FT. Would definitely take it again over many of the mediocre ‘omelets” that airlines like to serve in F for breakfast.

  3. Please let me know the percentage of passengers that buy up to first class on a domestic/non-transcon flight based on food.
    Airlines get by w/ what they offer in domestic first class because food is simply not a driver. Period.
    Add in that the vast majority of passengers in domestic first class do not pay directly to sit there but are on upgrades and the case is even less compelling to think that a domestic first class meal is a deal breaker.

    Finally, there very much still are catering worker shortages. It is a whole lot more costly and risky to promise a fancy plated meal and run the risk of not delivering than it is to put together an edible box lunch – as far of a departure from the past as it has been

    Just curious, FNT, how many paid (not upgraded but paid) domestic first class tickets have you flown since Feb 1, 2020?

  4. Tim Dunn, evidently your premise is incorrect. What you describe is in like with what the VP of inflight service bet on when she pulled hot meals last year and introduced the “fresh bites” boxes this summer. As far as I can tell she is no longer going to be in that position and of course now hot meals are coming back so…..

  5. @ Tim — I only fly up front, and yeah, I don’t pick the airline based on the food because it is generally all horrible. However, it does create a temporary positive/negative impression of the airline, which I suppose could have a marginal impact on who gets my loyalty.

  6. Last year, American Airlines Senior Vice President of Flight Service Jill Surdek stopped offering inflight meals. Please contact McDonald’s Restaurant to improve American Airlines’ inflight meal service. They can sell American Airlines a hot Happy Meal® breakfast.

    A Happy Meal includes an Egg McMuffin® (with freshly cracked eggs), a hash brown, and a kiddy toy packaged in a red cardboard box with a yellow smiley face and the McDonald’s logo at a wholesale cost about two dollars per passenger.

  7. @ Gene, agreed. It isn’t just the food. But given that the collection of small amenities AA first class offers apart from larger seats & more elbow room continually seems to shrink (remember hot towels ? warm mixed nuts ? a pre-flight beverage ? a warm cookie or a sundae offering for dessert ?), the absence or return of real meals served onboard could assume some importance in the mind of the paying first class customer. I am trying to remember what the last amenity or advantage that AA ADDED for first class, as opposed to cutting. Anyone know?

  8. F on a non transcon is just a hope that you won’t be made miserable like in coach (on AA).

    I’m not as miserable but I do bring my own seat cushion.

  9. @ Ken A, you may be joking, but tbh that sounds freaking delicious. I happily second your Happy Meal idea.

  10. Delta really needs to step it up. Their “box meals” are pathetic, especially for a 4+ hour flight. I have lounge access, so I can at least get something hot before the flight, but they need to stop being stingy. Being a DM, I got upgraded most of the time, but for those that pay, the meal should be more than what a convict gets…

  11. I really enjoy the meals, and they would be a key reason I would pick one airline over another. In the past on midcon domestic flights I enjoyed the bread choice on American. On a flight like DEN-BOS United is essentially back to pre-pandemic meal service levels.

  12. I fly FC on Alaska at least once a month. I just flew PIT-DFW on AA then DFW-SEA on Alaska. The inflight meals are far superior on Alaska and I usually find them to be quite good. There is also a lot of variety as I have only had the same meal a couple times.

    AA was ok as far as food. They had a little sandwich with some other snacks stuff. Delta meal boxes are a joke. I actually considered a status match in 2019 as SEA to the east coast has more options on Delta but with the partnership with AA continues to get better I’m glad I didn’t make the switch.

    We will see how GOLD 100K is on Alaska next year. Hopefully they hook it up with some other goodies.

  13. Gene’s reply is exactly what I expected and I would agree with him.
    I doubt if anyone is going to make a connection in order to get food they “like.” The one market cited – BOS-DEN – is served by one low cost carrier that never serves food (Southwest), one that serves non-traditional airline food but only on some routes (JetBlue), and United (a legacy) with another legacy coming in a few months (Delta). I can assure you that catering is different in competitive markets than they are in hub-captive markets. Since Denver is competitive between UA and WN and there are multiple competitive options from UA hubs, they have more reason to offer food than any other legacy carrier.
    With the most captive hubs and the highest share of its hubs, Delta has the least reason to offer food. That is just competitive reality.

  14. In F I would like to be pleasantly surprised and delighted by the food offering. Of course this is never going to happen on a US airline, ever.
    In a country where a deluxe meal is a deluxe hamburger with fries or the like, there is no incentive for airlines to amp up what they serve up.

  15. I will miss seeing people’s reactions to the Turkey Pastrami sandwich. And my saying, “I warned you.”

  16. @Karl Rupp: I was not kidding and, you are correct. A hot McDonald’s Happy Meal® breakfast is freaking delicious and makes passengers happy.

  17. American needs to bring back full crew. (They cut 2 flight attendants) they can not expect the flight attendants to do the job without full crew. Remember, your “Safety” is their number one priority.

  18. I do pay to sit in domestic F as much as possible…why??? Because I take the time to get caught up on emails, or other things on my computer. It is too hard to be on a laptop in the main cabin…even in MCE or Comfort+. Typically my employer pays for main cabin and I pay the difference…yes having an adult beverage is a added bonus. I am not asking for 5-star dining…but descent hot meals should be provided. On American these days it is a kick in the gut to the customer, when seated in first and they are heating hot meals for the flight crew but their paying or “higher value customers” in first are getting these poor excuses for meals.

  19. Most US airlines operate their domestic fleet at minimum flight attendant staffing already and have for years.

  20. That cold turkey sandwich flying Chicago or Dallas to San Diego is disgusting. We refuse it even on a dinner time flight and try to eat a good lunch. Hot meals are way over due!

  21. I don’t remember hearing the union saying the hot meals were a problem. Where did you get that?

  22. I usually pay to fly up front as I’m flexible to travel during lower priced fare periods but also able to book several months in advance. I’ve been loyal to Delta and Alaska historically due to the superior inflight experience, overall reliability and a confidence in their customer service and to do the right thing when things go wrong.

    Meals are certainly but just one part of that equation, but I’m usually connecting and I’m also usually on 3+ hour flights, so a half decent meal at mealtime – especially after a relatively short connection with no time to hit the lounge or line up for half hour for even fast food – these are a valued component for me when paying for a premium cabin.

    It’s partly because of the lacklustre Delta inflight product that I’ve been switching my flying lately. When you’re already paying to fly up front, the relentless pursuit of status for upgrades becomes less important and my loyalty more fickle. To argue that no one really cares about the product upfront is shortsighted IMHO.

  23. Corruption is an every day thing with management and catering at AA. They cannot even supply ice and cups on a good day. Yet, their contractors and vendors get paid for inferior food and non delivery. You can be assured that top executives never eat the pressed turkey meat or prison food. They have personal chefs and enjoy lavish parties with caviar which is paid for by passengers and employees . BTW, Sr. VP Jill Surdek was fired and told to leave after she screwed up too many time. Her replacement is much worse and on his way out. Nothing gets done. It is a shakedown every single day. Incompetence is a requirement to apply as a Manager at AA. You have to be a relative, friend or party partner to get the job.

  24. Having flown American domestic first class 6 times in the past two weeks, I can say I never want to see another Turkey sandwich. They also could improve their wine offerings. Too sweet and cheap tasting. And they need do something about the Oasis configuration on the A321 and 737 jets. Not being able to store a bag or even put your feet under the seat in the aisle seat is simply unacceptable even for a basic economy ticket let alone first class. And the lie flat on the 797-9 could be rethought so that the entire seat does not jostle when the person behind you shifts position. Makes it hard to sleep

    Also making it hard to sleep—lack of blankets and pillows. For some inexplicable reason, in my 3 lie flat flights, no blanket or pillow were offered even when requested (and 2 were redeyes!!), yet on 2 out of 3 regular domestic first flights, I received a blanket and pillow despite them being daytime flights.

    WTF is American thinking?

  25. Flew DFW to SFO today. My wife and I selected different meal options. Both were disgustingly inedible. Mine was cheese and dried tomatoes on an ice cold bun. Hers was some kind of salad with beef. The beef came frozen on the tray. Attendant said he did not know how to use the oven when we asked if meat could be warmed.
    Breakfast on an earlier AA flight was nearly as bad. An ice cold croissant, with density of pound cake, with rock hard butter.
    Whoever at AA that is still allowing this food quality to be served, 2 years into this pandemic, should be ashamed and never work in a customer service business again.

  26. Never thought I would long for the Turkey “Grueben” in my life but the replacement of a stale, cold “pretzel” bun turkey and cheese is much worse. If it was heated it might be edible.

  27. As long as the continue to serve Woodford Reserve in business class to help wash down the shit on a shingle food they serve

  28. Can’t believe that Delta is worse than American, but with this change it will be true.

    You think the sandwich photographed in this article is bad? I just flew DL on a roughly 4 hour flight and the meal was a box with a turkey sandwich. The sandwich was literally a stale bun, one deli thin slice of turkey breast, one of Swiss cheese, one tomato slice and half a lettuce leaf. Good luck not choking on it.

    Hopefully DL realizes that their food offering, no matter the class, is sub-par to say the least. I mention no matter the class because there is also nasty unrecognizable slob that they are serving on transatlantic flights too.

  29. Meh. Food has precisely zero impact on my choice of flight or carrier. Or my “impression of the brand” or whatever marketing speak you want to choose. Completely irrelevant.

    – signed, an AA EXP.

  30. I do think that more people are buying domestic F in the pandemic. I don’t fly as much as pre-pandemic, and when I fly I re-direct some of that spend to F. And the quality of the food is one of the factors on who I fly. Sure, route network is the most important thing, but it is not the only thing. If a choice is between different connecting flights, the size of the planes and the soft product definitely move the needle. And occasionally when the direct is more expensive or a less comfortable plane, I will do a connection on another airline, and in F if possible. I frequently made choices based on soft product on buying international business class. Good food and drink can command a premium.

    Domestically, I would be happy if an airline just served Pret.

  31. In calendar 2021 I flew 53 segments;
    22 – Paid F
    16 – Upgraded to F
    15 – Coach – no upgrade

    I am in exit rows if not upgrade.
    But I actually prefer the Exit row – more space and no reclining seat in front.
    Some have drop down, some tray in arm rest.
    But easier to use a laptop in coach exit row, then F.
    Since AA took out the old 738 F seat (one that slid forward) the space is too tight.
    If the F passenger in front reclines – it makes it tough to use the laptop.

    The sandwich is terrible – I always throw it away.
    I just wish AA would serve the Buy On Board sandwich – much better.
    The current F miles are likely cheaper than what they used to serve in coach for BOB.

  32. Ah the joy of biz class in Europe. They never stopped serving full hot meals and booze. And they had the same virus, too. Some airlines do care about their customers. And not the lip service crap about saving lives, while cutting costs.

  33. In regards to airline food I would say keep your expectations low and you will never be disappointed. For those of you who equate a “hot” meal as being superior, well I’ve seen enough of that slop to encourage me to take up fasting.

  34. For all of you chasing status to feel better about showing your “loyalty” to an airline … good luck, and don’t choke on those new meals.

  35. Sitting in first class on a Boston to Miami American flight, departed at 1:08 pm and no meal offered at all. We’re down to a bag of nuts or chips, beverage. Why bother flying first? The flight attendants don’t say hello or interact – I’m amazed. Any other airline!

  36. @AtTheBeach: Many Boston to Miami passengers prefer to upgrade from coach to the genuine care, comfort, and refined first-class ambiance on American Airlines. They believe receiving their one-ounce bag of nuts or chips, and a beverage for a $700 upgrade fee defines an extraordinary value in aviation travel.

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