For Domestic First Class Meals Quality is Better Than Quantity

Years ago there was a story about former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall having olives removed from first class salads, saving $40,000 a year. Small savings add up across all an airline’s flights and passengers. So carriers are often very careful about their pennies in catering.

In the spring of 2001 United replaced steak at lunch with gourmet cheeseburgers. Today’s inflight burgers on domestic airlines are much smaller and I find with lower quality meal. They keep figuring out ways to push the savings envelope farther.

It’s difficult to make broad claims about the first class catering of US airlines, since meal choices do vary, however I’ve had pretty good food on Virgin America and pretty bad food on American since September 2014 (when they aligned catering between legacy American and legacy US Airways).

American improved their food a bit in August 2015. Those new meals were supposed to rotate for a year but were served until November 2016.

On the whole American Airlines domestic meals are just bad. I don’t want them. Whenever possible I’ll grab food before the airport or in the airport, although sometimes a late arriving flight means there’s no time to grab anything on the way to your connection — especially with American boarding some aircraft before published times, and unlike Delta there’s generally no effort to save overhead bin space for first class passengers. Here’s an American Airlines domestic meal that isn’t actually terrible.

In general however I won’t eat when flying American Airlines domestically. That way I can just work, I don’t have to wait for my tray to be cleared.

Delta can be a mixed bag, but they generally offer better meal service than American. Whenever they serve salmon I find they do a good job.

Delta, like Alaska, puts a small bottle of water at first class seats prior to boarding. Delta does that and offers predeparture beverages. So the overall service up front is better than American. American has more legroom in first class, but American’s new standard cabin interior will squeeze that advantage away.

United is an interesting case. My recent lunches on United have been small but tasty.

I’m surprised by United’s willingness to offer food with spice. Here’s the jambalaya:

I wouldn’t call it close to authentic, but it’s really flavorful. And it’s not a lot of meat, heavy on the rice. A bread plate would be nice..

I recently tried chicken with macaroni and cheese. It came with a delicious spicy sauce. The entree, again, was small. I will talk small but edible any time over larger portions which are just bad.

Not everything is better about United Airlines of course. I intensely dislike their boarding pens. They board even earlier than American does on many aircraft, and passengers line up by boarding group before that even starts. That’s great for United getting everyone on quickly, not good for respecting the time of customers (since they, too — and unlike Delta — do not usually save bin space for first class passengers).

Overall I wish for a domestic first class product with more legroom than Delta, but Delta’s water and predeparture beverage consistency. For meals I don’t need a lot of food, if there’s savings needed take it out of quantity and give me something I don’t mind trying — with actual flavor. And save overhead bin space for first class passengers so they don’t have to waste half an hour sitting in a seat when they could be working in the lounge.

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. Gary, perhaps you or a reader can enlighten us as to how the meals are selected for each the flight? It seems there is a lack of consistency, and/or no rhyme or reason for certain meals on certain flights. Is there one person at the HQ who makes decisions for all meals? Is the decision made on a regional basis, or according to other (competitor airlines) oferings on certain routes? Meaning, the LAX-NYC meals in First/Biz are going to receive more scrutiny than, say, CLT-PDX meals (AA only, no competition).

  2. @Gary you say you “intensely dislike their boarding pens” — how do you feel more generally about boarding groups?

    I wish airlines boarded all at once, with one line for premium and one line for general. No groups, no jockeying for position within each line.

  3. Re: Boarding groups

    Have never seen a system better than Southwest’s- orderly and dead simple. Only have to stand for 2 minutes before you board.

  4. while I agree that AA meals are mostly terrible, the new move to allow pre-selection of special meals is great. I had a delicious Asian vegetarian dish this week–curry with chickpeas, mini pita bread, good salad.

    I’ll be going with the Asian vegetarian meal from here on out (and I am a heavy meat eater on the ground!).

  5. I’m actually a bit surprised that domestic meals haven’t been on an improving trend. There is definitely a trend to sell these seats (instead of giving them away as upgrades), and I thought a product that you wanted people to pay for would naturally get a little better.

  6. I flew PHX to PDX the other day in 1st and was pleasantly surprised by the dinner. Chicken overcooked but it had olives, tomatoes, and a light pesto sauce that made it nice. Not great as there were maybe 2 olives and a couple minerature tomatos but still tasty. The green beens were cooked just right.

    It was nice to see sone improvements that could make me fly AA first class again instead of southwest….

  7. Wouldn’t it be smart to board customers by seat number starting with the back of the plane, just like the old buses… “Plenty of room in the back.”. Actually, I don’t think airlines are serious about boarding, food, or deplaning. There are so many opportunities to improve customer experience, but it will take a little work and money, and it won’t improve load factors or show up on the bottom line for years.
    SWA figured this out by giving out peanuts and providing the fastest bus service money could buy.
    If you want to eat decent food on a plane, bring a to go.

  8. @Gary —> “. . . however I’ve had pretty good food on Virgin America.”

    VERY true! However, based on two recent flights on AS (one in FC, one in their PE seating) where the food was absolutely “gawd-awful,”¹ I am pained to think what AS will do to VX’s formerly quite tasty food options.

    ¹ Please tell me whose bright idea it was to serve bean burritos as the ONLY option for Coach passengers aboard a 737 for a 4.5 hour flight…

  9. Recently flew UA in “premium economy” to Europe which was a joke. Legroom improvement was marginal, no increase in seat recline and the food was absolutely horrid.

    Flew AF prem Econ the other night and they offer “real” differentiation with a overnight bag, wider/bigger seats and very edible dinner. Seat recline could be better but overall a good experience, especially when compared to UA.

    Verdict: UA – never pay that premium again. AF: worth it.

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