There are 2 Reasons American is Introducing Free Snacks Back Into Economy

Move over stroopwafels, American’s coming improvements to coach via Scott Mayerowitz:

In February, American will start offering Biscoff cookies or pretzels to passengers flying between New York and San Francisco or Los Angeles. By April, those snacks will expand to all other domestic routes. In May, American will bring back full meal service for coach passengers between Dallas and Hawaii.

Or as Henry Harteveldt said, “American and United realized: We don’t let other airlines have an advantage on price, why let them have one on pretzels.”

So this month we get free snacks in economy for premium New York JFK – West Coast flights and also Los Angeles – Miami. And this expands across the domestic route network ‘by April.’ It’s interesting that it takes a couple of months to roll out beyond the public announcement, since presumably they’ve been working on this for awhile.

Customers traveling on flights departing prior to 9:45 a.m. will receive Biscoff® cookies. On flights departing after 9:45 a.m., customers will have a choice between Biscoff® cookies or pretzels, rotated on a seasonal basis.

I’ll be interested to see what the economy meal service on the 8 hour Dallas – Hawaii flights are like.

Airlines cut, cut, cut frills from economy and the sum total of the cuts was to make the experience feel less like ‘economy’ and more like ‘cattle class’. With fuel prices low and airlines making record profits, they’re returning some of the small touches. But don’t expect checked bag fees to go away because of the tax arbitrage play.

A decade ago Continental Airlines advertised that it would still offer pillows, blankets, and meals at meal times on domestic flights.

And Alaska Airlines advertised that the cuts had gone so far other airlines would soon be charging to use the lavatory.

Yet Continental did get rid of free meals. And snacks. While Delta kept modest snacks in economy throughout.

  • In general customers don’t really realize which airlines will provide snacks in economy
  • They’re making decisions for the most part on price
  • And can certainly bring their own snacks

But it is part of the overall branding experience, a customer may rule out an airline price being equal on the basis of their brand experience or the carrier’s reputation.

United added back snacks to economy. So we’re returning to an equilibrium where basic snacks are offered. But why? There’s really two reasons.

  1. American needs to offer snacks because both Delta and United do. They aren’t going to be the only one of the three largest US airlines not offering snacks. That just looks cheap, and represents the idea that they offer less value to the traveler than their competitors. It’s less the snacks and more the signaling; they don’t want to signal less value for money.

  2. Competition with low cost carriers. Since they need to be competitive with United and Delta anyway, this expense gives them a leg up on Spirit and Frontier.

Even as American prepares to offer Basic Economy fares, lowest fares that exclude things probably like advance seat assignments and possibly frequent flyer miles, following Delta’s lead and expected to launch in the second half of the year, they further differentiate their product from Spirit that’s driving down price in many of American’s key markets.

If you fly a major US airline you’re going to get 31 inches of room from seat back to seat back in economy. That’s a couple more inches than Spirit. So even leaving aside miles, and advance seat assignments, that’s a plus at the same price. And you don’t pay for carry on bags, either. Now you’ll even get cookies, while Spirit charges for water.

American’s Fern Fernandez makes this point explicitly:

“We know that we have customers who select our airline based on price and we’re really excited to offer them a product that is superior to choosing an ultra-low cost carrier

It can be a competitive advantage of some carriers to catch up to the inflight experiences of other carriers.

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. Yup, once UA decided to offer stroopwaffels, it was inevitable that AA would also offer free domestic “snacks.” Although I noticed that AA is only going with cheapo things like pretzels. My memory is that America West paid only a couple of pennies per pack for these. It’s a no-brainer to offer them, since it does make the product seem better than the bare-bones discounters like Spirit.

    The reintroduction of little perks is good for both the airlines and their customers. Logic would suggest that if flying seems a bit more humane, people will fly more.

    I’m kind of expecting to see a little more competition in the paid domestic meals that are offered. One of the biggest “problems” now is that they seem to be a bit of a rip-off. Like Alaska has been charging less than the legacies and giving you better food. I think the airlines should be looking at this more as a place to woo customers than as a profit center. Like offer a decent coach meal for 8 bucks. Heck, that might engender more loyalty than the frequent flyer programs.

  2. Any word on how this will affect the free snack option for EXPs flying in the main cabin? While not great, those options are typically more substantial than a bag of pretzels or biscoff cookies?

  3. Quality matters, too.

    American’s coffee is free but undrinkable.

    Spirit’s coffee costs $1.50 ($3 for 2) and is actually somewhat decent.

  4. I’m a bit stunned that this announcement didn’t include anything about Main Cabin Extra on transcon flights. Delta Comfort+ travelers get Luvo wraps and frozen yogurt bars, and a handful of amenities, which I thought was a really nice touch on my last transcon. But in AA’s MCE, it doesn’t sound like you get a whole lot more than in Y aside from extra legroom on those transcon flights.

  5. United’s illy coffee can’t come soon enough! I flew BOS-DEN today and was stuck with the old swill.

    Now, when can we get the espresso machine like on Asian carriers?

  6. As long as the meals or snacks offered for sale are passable I’m ok with that.

    Flew Virgin America DCA-SFO on main extra and all the snack offerings were pretty bad.

  7. Sorry, but I don’t give a darn about inflight snacks. Give me a seat that doesn’t make me feel claustrophobic and a free checked bag so I can quit fighting all the folks trying to load their unchecked bags. Oh wait, that ship has sailed . . . Flying sucks, period.

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