Don’t Expect The Travel Experience To Be The Same When Flying Returns

The service we’re used to from airlines doesn’t come close to what was offered in many ways in the late 1990s, but it’s a lot better than we experienced from 2001 through 2010. The ups and downs of the airline industry have determined the level of investment in its product, and we’re about to see what down times mean for product again – even once we’re able to fly in a way that’s closer to ‘normal’.

Old timers often yearn for the days before deregulation when planes were empty and fares were high. You usually got an empty seat next to you. And since airlines weren’t allowed to offer low prices, they competed for business by rebating value to the customer in the form of food. That’s the explanation for seat side carved chateaubriand.

Even after deregulation though meals were an area of competition for airlines. They raced for the price sensitive bottom of the market, for sure, but airlines also went after lucrative business travelers. United once outfitted special galley carts for a tie-in with McDonalds, serving burgers in economy while keeping the hot side hot and the cold side cold as flight attendants proceeded down the aisle. In the late 90s United even had a celebrity chef partnership with Sheila Lukins for meals in the back of the plane.

While meals in coach were long the stuff of late night comic monologues, United’s Sheila Lukins dishes included Heartland Sunday Braised Beef; Zesty Herb Lasagna; Minty Tortellini Alfredo With Ham; and Orange Grove Chicken.

United Airlines Coach Meal Recipes Were Given Away Onboard In a Cookbook, 1997

Meal cutbacks began in earnest in 2001. United, for instance, replaced a steak on cross country lunch flights with a ‘gourmet cheeseburger’ (far better than the burgers seen up front in modern times). It was a controversial move. And contrary to popular memory, the cuts weren’t driven by 9/11 – they were driven by recession, which started before that.

The years following 9/11 saw low fares and airline bankruptcies: United in 2002; US Airways in 2002 and 2004; Delta and Northwest in 2005. Those brought their own cutbacks. And just as airlines were getting back on their feet with a good economy in 2006 and 2007, the Great Recession hit.

The recession accelerated the move towards charging separately for everything, from the end of meals in coach to charging for a first checked bag and monetizing seat assignments as well.

It wasn’t until airlines began to make money from the combination of a strong economy and low fuel prices that passenger experience began to see investment again. Airline lounges with ripped furniture started getting renovated again. Planes were cleaned more frequently. Snacks began to return to coach, and even tests of meals in back on a limited number of routes.

How Most of The US Airways Club Furniture Looked At LaGuardia In 2011

Perhaps in a sign that passenger perks had jumped the shark, Delta began coursing meals in international economy, greeting passengers at the start of flight with hot towels and welcome cocktails, and instructed flight attendants to thank their guests.

Don’t expect a snap back to 2019 when the coronavirus travel recession ends. The airline business is going to be hurt (so is the hotel business). People won’t all come back right away. Fares are likely to be low for an extended period. With less revenue will come less investment.

  • Lounges may be slow to re-open, and new lounges delayed. United’s President Scott Kirby said – before we even knew how bad things would get – that capital investment probably wouldn’t return for four years.
  • There will be less food in lounges and on board, sold as changing consumer preferences around social distancing and having a lighter employee touch on food
  • Expect more deferred maintenance. Few readers probably remember the days when United ignored broken reading lights at seats, and preferred to compensate passengers with vouchers than fix minor items on planes.

Airlines will cut costs wherever they can. Passengers need to come back in droves before they’ll justify returning investments to their prior level. Investors are going to insist on getting paid quickly, cognizant that airline profits are far more fragile than industry CEOs have been arguing. (As though investors aren’t already being propped up by a pending government bailout.)

I’m not suggesting that things will go back to 2002 or 2009 levels, for instance there’s a reasonable chance that guacamole comes back to Admirals Clubs since Mastercard was paying.

However the ‘soft product’ element of flying isn’t likely to look like what it did for quite awhile.

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 I have often said that airlines and hotels should cut these programs down and pass that cost savings back to the customers ( you know they won’t ). I too remember those days before points. Eastern Airlines had a great program for upgrades but those were based on actually paid flying in First Class also you could get a packet of blank airline tickets, walk up to any airline if there was a seat write the ticket and away you go, first class or main. AND people actually dressed to fly not what one sees today.

    I contend that it will be a while before the flying public is willing to walk onto a packed main cabin and fly. Parker and company I think (and hope) will reduce the density of their planes for the near future I just don’t see it coming back like some punditants are saying,.

  2. Maybe we’ll see the return of programs like student standby. I remember United’s 12/21 Club, where we (those aged 12-21 years) could fly standby for 50% of the fare, or with a reservation for 75%. Each program was airline specific. Great for building loyalty among young people who otherwise could not afford to fly in the days before deregulation.

    It could be a way to fill planes and get some revenue when travel comes back.

  3. Retired Lawyer – you would first have to find a way to get these young standby flyers past security without boarding passes.

  4. I would actually expect very little to change in onboard service once virus fears recede.

  5. @ghostrider5408

    Stickers. They were the way to fly! if you had stickers, you could re-route yourself anywhere!

    As for me, I would like to see someone like AA do teh same as Hilton did: Extend the current status to 2021. Face it: 2020’s a mulligan.

  6. Gary- when will we start seeing canceled plane orders and deliveries.

    Boeing and Airbus have got to be going through it with this down turn.

  7. May I suggest allowing outside food be brought into lounges? There are many great food options in airports now but often no place to eat them besides your lap the gates.

    Let the lounges get out of the hot food business. Just have some snacks, a bar and more tables to eat where it’s clean, comfortable and spacious. Provide real silverware to use.

    The lounges are being constantly cleaned anyway. Why not make it part of the service.

    Failing that, make it possible to order from airport restaurants at the club.

    I’ve been in clubs at airports all over the world. The food is never very good. Even at the alleged high end places like Flagship Lounges, often options in the concourse are better.

  8. At AA I don’t care if amenities and maintenance are cut back as long as I can feel comfortable that the butt in the cockpit will be making his/her $300k and that flight attendants will be there primarily for my safety, all with disdain for the carrier and the passenger

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