It’s Possible to Have a Fantastic Meal on a Domestic Flight! (Just Fly Alaska Airlines)

Last summer I was pleasantly surprised by the meal I had on Alaska Airlines. I bulgogi chicken was excellent and even a bit spicy (airlines almost always do bland to meet the widest variety of tastes, but that’s a bad idea at altitude where your taste buds are already dulled). They even had printed menus.

This week I flew Alaska for the first time in 2019 and once again was blown away by the meal. I was flying on a legacy Virgin America Airbus A320 that hadn’t had its interior updated yet to the new Alaska Airlines standard. That meant I had the (admittedly worn) best domestic first class seat in the sky outside of routes with lie flat seats.

Flying Austin – San Francisco I had seats with footrests and tons of recline.

I had business meetings in San Francisco and made a day trip. That meant the 7:40 a.m. departure from Austin (making it to San Francisco at 9:30 a.m.) and the 6:50 p.m. flight home (returning after midnight). It’s a long day, but I could cram in a full slate of meetings without spending the night away. I was fortunate to have been booked into first class.

There were no pre-printed menus, but the first thing I noticed in the app is that not only is there an opportunity to pre-order your meal selection up to 24 hours prior to departure but you don’t just get the name of a dish but a full description of its accompaniments. That information remains available even when you can no longer pre-order.

Alaska Airlines doesn’t do predeparture beverages, but there’s a small bottle of water at each first class seat upon boarding which does the trick.

Perhaps the most impressive element of the service was the friendly flight attendants in both directions who seemed genuinely happy to be there. Here’s what surprised me the most:

Boarding 40 minutes prior to departure is wholly unnecessary in my opinion, the aircraft was fully boarded after 20 minutes and we pushed back early and were even airborne right at scheduled push back time.

My breakfast bowl was reasonably good with plenty of vegetables that actually tasted fresh. The breakfast bread was delicious and there was a blueberry smoothie to accompany it. I was most impressed by the presentation. It wasn’t just food thrown down on a plate that was shaken up in transport from the catering facility to the aircraft. Look at the symmetrical arrangement of the fruit.

For dinner there was a choice of tortellini or chicken. My seat mate didn’t opt for either so the flight attendant proactively offered to get him a fruit and cheese place that’s for sale in the back.

I’m not a big fan of chicken but didn’t feel like the pasta. I was shocked by how juicy it was, and perfectly seasoned, and again nicely presented.

I’d have been happy to have this meal for dinner at home, constraints of an aircraft galley aside. I cannot remember the last time I said that about a meal on a domestic flight.

There were hot towels and nuts served before dinner, and a warm chocolate chip cookie after. I wish they’d done a nicer dessert.

It’s a shame that Alaska is scaling back on the quality of its first class hard product as it standardizes its fleet after the the Virgin America merger. However on board catering they’re doing right — more so than my experiences in the past year with American, United, and Delta.

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. By no means the only way in which Alaska is superior. Generally better service and even after removing the Virgin seats, more legroom in first class than the competition.

  2. > I was fortunate to have been booked into first class.

    Is this new? Would be curious to know what (if any) effects on your airline and loyalty patterns arise from being able to buy first class outright, instead of relying on an upgrade.

  3. Sad that a tiny salad and a main that’s not the size of a plate is better than what’s on AA/DL/UA.

    There’s nothing spectacular about this but don’t doubt it’s better than what the competition serves.

  4. Alaska is today what JetBlue once was. They just “get it”.

    While others are stuck on an AA/UA/DL ride or die treadmill to nowhere, my Quality of Flight is superior. And the transfer partners for points aren’t that bad either.

    Very underrated, is the ability to text them. I’ve changed flights and done so much via SMS.

  5. It is a sham! It’s just because people who fly Alaska are seasoned travelers and fly in an out of small airports, that’s why they reach the plane already with a smile. Its also because they’re not as big as us (United), so people think their little clean planes with smiling fa’s are cute.
    We are ten times better than they are, our problem is with our customers that expect too much, like a good morning (recognizing that they’re human beings, not cargo), punctuality, flexibility from gate agents and all that nonsense. That’s why our fa’s have to constantly remind our fliers that they’re only entitled to safety, the hay and the fodder are only provided because we are sooooo generous.
    Yours truly,
    Scott Kirby.

  6. @ Bitzer. Well Done!!!!!

    Gary, Alaska is the best airline in North America hands down. They have this odd tendency to hire people who are nice and train them to do the job second, rather than bring in the jaded flunkies if other legacy carriers.

    Ohhhhh, and you get 1 mile per mile flown. Not some devalued Dollars spent before taxes x5 mathematical formula the others have

    I fly AS weekly from DAL to PDX and have always been treated well.

    Some bad news…….
    – they are getting rid of the AIRBUS as per employee rumor mill

    – they are facing big costs due to being the smallest airline with all four major aircraft brands (Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier and Embraer)

    -the Horizon employee wing of the company is starting to bristle a bit about pay differences with full Alaska crew

    However, the food I have been served is usually edible, fresh and served by a person with a positive demeanor.
    In the race to the bottom they are dead last.

  7. Alaska is a serious threat to Delta. We know this because Delta is losing sleep to invade Seattle and working to suppress Alaska while they are still small.
    Delta knows that a few more mergers for Alaska could turn them into the behemoth their politically incorrect mascot represents. JetBlue comes to mind.
    Superior service with competitive rates will do the trick. And from the nature of your post, it sounds like they have that.
    The big question is, why did they pick Bankamerica to cobrand with, when CapitalOne was available?

  8. LOL Alaska is a a serious threat to Delta! All because Gary had good chicken? Ok duly noted.

    Alaska’s insane 40-45 min early boarding when half the time their flight attendants provide no preflight service yet chat away is wholly unnecessary. It’s not uncommon to get paged at 25 min for final call. And in coach having to wait an extra 30 min for a can of coke or juice because AS wants to try & save with a “famous water” service of a plastic cup of aqua?!?

    Point is I could waste 20 min and list all the short comings of Alaska’s service. And there are many IMO. I could also do the same for Delta, United and so forth…I’ve actually had a great meal on United domestic. Amazing I know…

    To make Alaska sound like a panacea…well that’s just the Seattle homer speaking up who’s always flown AS & doesn’t have any idea what the other guys are like – except Delta who’s big and bad because they brought competition to AS & SEA.

  9. I have an Alaska flight in July, Seattle to Austin. Hopefully my experience matches yours.

  10. As per AS policy, PDB should be offered in F.
    The small water bottles at seat are standard. The consistency of PDB offerings in F has been widely discussed by us on FT.
    Before 10:30am, Coffee or orange juice is offered.
    After 10:30, coffee, orange juice or sparkling wine offered.
    Getting FA to observe their current policy is another matter.

    Agree that F is nice on Airbus metal. Too bad it is going away. Until then , we are flying this product as much as possible.

  11. We fly KOA (Kona, Hawaii) – SFO and back Alaska first class fairly regularly. Yes, the food is a cut above the quality of United (but is that really saying much?), but not as good as Hawaiian but both are generally very heavy on the overly sugary sauces on the main courses. As for having the cheese plate brought up from economy, we once were able to have that done, but the next time the supervising FA in first class said “that will be $8” (now gone up to $8.50, by the way). He even demanded to know the date of our flight (which I refused to provide) so he could report the FA who gave us the cheese plate, saying it was a violation of company policy. Unbelievable. To show that was not just a crazy FA on a bad day, on the very next time we took that flight a couple of months later, the couple in the seats behind us got the same speech when they declined the main courses on offer in first class because — as happens commonly with Alaska on this route — they commonly run out of the more popular items in first class meals. As a result we often bring left-overs with us the use as a main course and just get the set-ups and drinks in first class. Thank goodness they’ve finally added the KOA-SFO route to the advance meal order program on their app, so at least we now pick something we can eat — often, in fact, the cheese and fruit plate which is on the first class advance order app! We’ll continue to use Alaska because of regular non-stop flights to our small airport and almost always on-time. Crew is generally nice. Seat pitch is miserable and current 737 seats are quite uncomfortable compared to other carriers, but a couple of drinks and a nap make that easier to take on the 5-hour flight. And as you’ve often observed, their mileage program is one of the best in the air.

  12. Sorry to rain on the love fest but my experiences on Alaska have been the opposite. Disinterested, bored ground staff in Seattle, delayed flights with no information, and a First Class meal (large wilted, soggy salad) which would embarrass McDonald’s.

  13. Alaska is definitely the best US-based airline. However, contrary to your experience I have always been offered a PDB in F.

  14. F FAs are not supposed to bring fruit and cheese plates to F unless the are paid for.

  15. I’m MVP Gold 75K on Alaska. I fly them about 100 flights per year. I fly coach, first class. Buy first and get upgraded to first and also buy coach. Ive also been 1K on United and Gold on delta. This is just my opinion. But Alaska definitely took a step back when they overpaid by a billion dollars for an airline that could barely make a profit (Virgin). In the past few years they havr drastically cut back on their inflight service (even though they brag how great their product is). They eliminated ALL HOT MEALS for purchase in coach on all flights. It started with shorter distance flights under 2.5 hrs. Now it’s also on their long haul Hawaii and transcon flights. They used to have really good coach hot meals for purchase . Now your stuck small, stale cold sandwichs or salads ( that they brag how great they are). I’ve tried them all and none are worth 2 bucks let alone 9 bucks. I’m someone who will pay for quality and willing to pay but I won’t waste my time or money on these cold meals.
    The first class meals are hit are miss. Some are great some are gross. I’ve noticed in the past 2 yrs they’ve eliminated pasta, and other really good meals that alternatate on the shorter SEA SAN routes. Now it’s either a hot sandwiche or a cold protein plate. The protein plate in my opinion is worthless the sandwiches are good but just not the good quality meals of even a few yrs ago. If you fly often it’s the same exact items for a few months.
    The long range flights it’s ok. But I’ve noticed it’s been very strange and spicy items. A family member refers to their first meals as Klingon food compared to United , Delta and AA first meals.
    Honestly if I had to choose and pay for first domestically I would pick AA or DL instead. I just prefer their first product, in seat TV and meals better. I fly Alaska because of their FF and Elite program. They offer actual miles not based on dollars and elite status with no minimum dollars spent. That is the only reason I fly them as much as possible but I’d bet they would switch just like the other airlines in future years. Just like they did adding basic economy seats and extra legroom seats for purchase.
    Alaska will never compete directly with AA, DL, or UA. They would need to triple their fleet and add Midwest and east coast hubs to directly compete. But I really would like them to be their own airline, return hot buy on board meals and keep their elite and FF program the way it is now

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