American’s New Meal Service, and Why Food Matters on a Plane

At the end of June I got a preview of Ameican’s new meal service which rolled out domestically August 1st.

The changes were a continuation of improvements that began May 1 when the airline introduced entree salads.

Here’s the pecan crusted chicken salad from a Dallas – Seattle flight on Tuesday.

  • The protein is served on the side, in deference to vegetarians.
  • A piece of cake replaced the chocolate chip cookie. Many seem to like the cake, I find the center way too rich.
  • I wouldn’t have minded a third shrimp in the appetizer, but the cocktail sauce inside a cucumber was sort of neat actually.

Next week I’ll finally try one of the new dinner entrees, steak with lobster mac and cheese.

The salads are fine, they’re lunch. There’s little question that American’s meal service is much improved over where they were September through April. Frequent flyers can debate where the service stands compared to a year ago, and compared to United and Delta. In fact, that’s fun!

And it got me thinking. United has improved its meal service, too. American is back to the point where I’ll eat the food served on the plane again, for months I had simply skipped the meals. What sort of food should an airline serve in domestic first class and why?

  • With shorter connecting times (‘banked hubs’) it’s not just the length of one domestic flight but often two and perhaps without time to pick anything up in the terminal in between them as you run from flight to flight.
  • Onboard options, especially at airports with limited choices inside security, are more important than ever with the TSA’s War on Water. You simply can’t bring your own food the way you used to be able to.
  • It’s a service, you have plenty to worry about in travel, not having to deal with meals is just one less thing.
  • It’s traditional. In fact, during the regulated era airlines weren’t legally permitted to compete on price. The government ensured prices at which airlines would earn profits, so they did want to compete. So they competed on non-price items like food. There was even discussion at a hearing of regulating the thickness of sandwiches to keep airlines from engaging in ruinous competition in the form of giving passengers food.

Don’t these same arguments apply in economy, even if the food isn’t free? Airlines offer buy on board, and I’ve actually much enjoyed the sandwiches that American has had in back (100,000 mile flyers get a complimentary drink and buy on board item when flying economy). Although I really liked the buy on board sandwiches they were serving three years ago under Marcus Samuelsson branding.

I was flying out of Seattle yesterday and a flight attendant announced the buy on board options — noting that the meals weren’t loaded ‘due to a shortage’ and there were only snack items to choose from.

The very fact that airlines:

  • Do seem to be competing over inflight meals suggest they believe that food matters to passengers, and that customers will book away from airlines offering an inferior experience
  • Continue to offer buy on board — less expensive to the airline than offering complimentary meals in economy than they used to, but not necessarily a profit center in its own right — suggests that it’s a basic passenger need, without which passengers will have a negative experience and book away from the carrier in the future.

So food does matter. I had gotten quite used to skipping the meals on American, finding a way to forage in the terminal. Although not having to do this is especially valuable flying American since they board before designated boarding time and so grabbing something to go may trade off with finding overhead bin space.

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. I had the pecan crusted chicken on DFW-IAD and the lobster mac and cheese with steak on IAD-DFW this past week. Neither was served with an appetizer and were not a well presented as your photos. That being said, both were fairly good for airplane food. Steak was over cooked making it a bit chewy thought the lobster mac was the best of the items. On both flights the chocolate chip cookie remained the dessert and was served after the main meal.

  2. “Onboard options, especially at airports with limited choices inside security, are more important than ever with the TSA’s War on Water. You simply can’t bring your own food the way you used to be able to.”


    1) Like you, I am a very frequent traveler. Options have never been better at airports. Have you been to EWR at all recently? They are ripping up the moving walkways to add new food options. I find there are many more options than five or ten years ago.

    And, what does “TSA’s War on Water” have to do with food options? (By the way, the TSA doesn’t have a “War on Water,” they just don’t allow it.)

  3. @mark many airports have great food options, many others do not. And even at airports that do, that’s not universal across all terminals at the airport. The TSA’s war on water limits what food you can bring through security and onto the plane. No matter how much you seem to like security theater, it does limit your ability to take many food items through the checkpoint.

  4. @M2 – the chicken was how things were presented on the plane. it should be presented that way, the flight attendant just removes plastic from domestic meals and doesn’t do any plating. The lobster mac and cheese/steak dish photo was from on the ground in a presentation, I don’t expect it to look as good onboard even though the flight attendant just removes plastic and heats.

  5. On most domestic flights, airplane food really does not matter. I can eat more and better either prior to or after my flights or even in the vast majority of airports to/from which I fly or connect.

  6. I had the shrimp and grits from PHX-IAH last night and it was surprisingly good (better than the last time I had it on AA)

  7. I’m flying first class DFW-OGG. Do you think it will have upgraded food options like the flight in this article? I previously read your rave review of the ice cream Sundae so I hope they don’t take that away.

  8. So AA still can’t answer the phone, dis-honors seats assignments and does’t provide Gold Advantage members with any additional baggage allowance on overseas flights and re staring a system conversion in their face but they have improved their food? Uh, let’s take care of the basics first….

  9. In a whining mood, I would say the cheese on every salad isn’t a great thing for the lactose intolerant crowd and you can’t order it without due to that whole “premade” thing, but the new menu has been better in my opinion as well. Still not as good as Delta’s food, but you get real frequent flier miles with the lesser food.

  10. I always said that the tastes of people on a plane are just way too varied to do fancy items like lobster mac and cheese. Airlines should try to make sure they have a great beef, chicken and veg item on the menu, and stop trying to be 5* restaurants. I am ALL FOR better food, but I hate not knowing what will be on the menu for the ride, and sometimes finding out its something I would rather not eat. Knowing there is always a basic chicken, beef or pasta would just be a good option.

  11. I had the lobster mac & cheese last night. Presentation, and a amount of lobster 1 small bite) was nowhere near that picture. Tasted ok though.

    Honestly I’d be happier with plain meals…even selections from the airport concessions. The more ‘gourmet’ they try to make meals the worse they get IMO. 30,000 feet just does lend itself to it.

  12. The domestic airline that serves real food in coach at a reasonable price is Alaska. I believe it is a competitive advantage when flying longhaul domestic coach.

  13. Am I correct that airlines still follow the rule of serving a meal that matches the origination timezone as opposed to the destination timezone? This is backwards, and contributes to jet lag.

  14. I tried the steak and lobster mac and cheese on Wednesday on a flight to DFW. The result–awful! The steak was about two ounces and was way overcooked and tough. However, it wasn’t like a grilled overcooked with a crispy outside, instead it was simply baked to death. Even cooked properly, it would have been poor. The lobster mac and cheese was overcooked, gummy, and not really edible. Overall, very poor, except that were still served the cookie and they were excellent.

  15. American doesn’t get it and may never get it. So sad
    Having said that some just don’t care and or deal with whatever poison AA and their catering dept serves up
    I’ve primarily given up flying them and go to the International carriers to fly premium cabins on revenue and reward for a better experiences and comfort.
    In 2000 American had highly satisfactory food even in business class trans cons.
    Today its all mostly a cluster#
    They never seem to get anything right domestic or international not even snacks or desserts 🙁
    The drinks have been watered down due to overly melted ice
    American considers serving food and beverage a give away and not an essential part of the experience
    All about nickel and dime cost cutting and it shows
    Sub par institutional beef overcooked till its rubber
    Dried out tough stingy chicken breasts. Low quality packaged dinner rolls improperly heated
    Id argue the bag they came in has better texture
    Wilted salads with portion sized to serve a flea aren’t what premium cabins are all about
    Not a single premium sparkling water onboard and mixed nuts served in a thimble that are seconds/slivers of reject pieces
    If these are the enhancements there is no such thing as improvements at AA
    They were doing better with BOB turkey pesto wraps years ago
    If American ran its food and beverage on par with airline maintenance probably most of the fleet would crash and burn
    Sorry to be so negative but I have no hope for them they simply haven’t a clue.

    Tell AA to Go study their exceptional partner Qantas they do impressive meal service on a 45 minute flight in business class than AA does on long haul premium cabin flights Kudos to Neil Perry. He does better in they air for Qantas then he does on the ground sometimes for his own restaurants
    I’m tired of waiting and have given up.
    I’m not coming back and they don’t listen to customers and really don’t want the feedback when I’ve tried. If others are happy with the product I’m happy for them
    Life is to short to eat slop and American has it for the most part

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