Truth in Advertising, American Airlines Catering Edition

Short premium cabin flights in Europe usually come with lounge access and a decent meal but don’t give you more legroom. In contrast U.S. airlines sell lounge access separately, give you a bigger seat and a bit more room, but the food is often wretched.

I date the beginning of real cuts to domestic premium cabin meal service to early 2001. A cross country lunch flight up front on United might have offered a shrimp appetizer courses separately from a steak entree. In spring 2001 United introduced a ‘gourmet cheeseburger’t hat was controversial for its time but far better than anything a U.S. airline calls a cheeseburger today. (In the late 1990’s United even had chef-branded meals in economy, from Sheila Lukins.)

The race to the bottom has certainly accelerated in recent years. In September 2014 American Airlines imposed drastic food service cuts, US Airways-izing the meals they offered. That only lasted until summer 2015 because complaints from customers and employees grew so lounge.

I’m not a big fan of most of American’s meals today, but at least you can pre-order your choice (so the airline doesn’t run out of your first selection) and there are several pre-order options though those have seen some cutbacks. The Zoës Kitchen pre-order charcuterie option is a decent standby.

None of what’s being served up front should be confused with ‘first class’ though, and it’s a bit odd that U.S. airlines retain the moniker rather than calling it business class as in much of the world.

There was a bit of honesty on a recent American flight, albeit inadvertently. Reader Mark R. passes along this photo of the Kosher Meal he ordered.

Clearly this is a mislabel for a special meal being served domestically. Nonetheless I still believe U.S. airlines are missing an opportunity by not selling better food in first class.

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. There’s another difference in premium cabins between intra-Europe and intra-USA: the people sitting up front in Europe paid extra to do so. As long as the American carriers treat domestic first class as perk, that’s all it will be.

  2. @Pat. Those days are long over. The US airlines are selling more of the seats than in the past. I think Delta is over 60%. What has happened is that the price of a first class seat has dropped significantly in most markets. Gary mentions the United transcon meal service in early 2001. What was the average cost of an F ticket back then? Personally, I will take the diminished meals if it means (as it does now) that I can buy an F ticket for a modest premium and not have to worry about the upgrade lottery.

  3. I wish US3 would rename First Class to their equivalent premium economy product as DL does when flying a domestic 757 internationally.

  4. “In September 2014 American Airlines imposed drastic food service cuts, US Airways-izing the meals they offered. That only lasted until summer 2015 because complaints from customers and employees grew so lounge.”
    Shortly after those cuts took effect, United announced it was upgrading (for real) their domestic first meals. Which forced USdbaAA to back track some of their cuts. Had UA done nothing, I bet AA would have stayed the course as well.

  5. I don’t fly domestic first class for the food.

    And better food isn’t going to make me buy more first class tickets.

    Completely irrelevant.

  6. The fact is quite obvious that Lufthansa’s European domestic Business is light years better than anything the US3 put together as domestic First.

    Whether it is but a 50+ minute flight Frankfurt-Geneva or 2+ hours Porto-Frankfurt or Munich, it feels like a North Atlantic flight on Lufthansa: complete table d’hôte meal with several quality selections (salad, appetizer, entree, vegetable, dessert), continuous cocktail service; graciously and timely served.

    The reason we do not enjoy similar service is due to the lack of meaningful competition, e.g., ORD-LAX between AA, CO, TW, UA. And today, we’re stuck with a narrow monopoly of the US3 content to be run by bean counters; no longer marketing gurus who understood what the customer experience was all about.

  7. There really is little comparison between US domestic first and EU business. The US domestic first will have a much more comfortable recliner seat, and bad food (save Virgin America, now gone). EU business has the same seat as economy, just the middle seat blocked off, and much better food. In fact, I’ve long wondered why the intra-US food could not be as good as the intra-EU airline food. It is not as though the EU food seems more expensive. In fact, it is often along the lines of the Zoe meal shown above (which looks pretty good to me, by the way). But the US is also bigger. If I’m on a 5 hour domestic flight, I’d rather have the good seat. EU flights are rarely over 2 hours, so the seat does not matter as much.

  8. My last 5 “upfront” flights: 4 Zoes 1 “hamburger”.
    Results: unlimited Woodford Reserve is a better with Zoes
    Sidebar: a least the Zoe’s doesn’t have to be hot/warm.

  9. Regarding “I’m not a big fan of most American’s meals today …” I will say that while I usually accept the less than stellar quality of “First Class” meals on AA, my flight Monday afternoon from AUS-LAX did set a new LOW in airline food. The absolute worst I’ve ever encountered, anywhere, and that includes Crew Meals. So bad in fact that I’m booking Delta F for my return trip … the young woman with her comfort animal sitting next to me in 5A (both of them) didn’t add to my comfort. But then I’m not of the “I’m entitled” generation so I need to accept having my “comfort” and safety subservient that of her dog. (It was not a legitimate Service Dog.) Although I did notice that the dog wouldn’t eat the chicken either so …

  10. The race to the bottom started with food quality and poor variety but truly accelerated full throttle when Crud Parker torched and gutted the Advantage FF program
    Added to that a frequently horrible customer service and a hostile vindictive business culture starting with corporate
    After decades flying American most of my family friends and colleagues followed me to other carriers
    It’s shocking that anything negative Delta Does American copies it yet anything positive by any other carrier American blindly ignores
    I had hoped I would wake up from the bad dream that American has become but the State Of American Airlines is simply shocking how bad it’s become and it doesn’t begin or end with the dog poo they now serve in so called premium cabins

  11. @Mark,

    Hear! Hear! And spot on!

    The lack of meaningful competition, aka Oligopoly, is the root of most evils now afflicting the airline industry.

    American Airlines is worse now than airlines such as Eastern, Pan Am & TWA that failed in years’ past because flyers/consumers had choices, and as such avoided those “bad” airlines, which as bad as they may have been in their era, were still considerably better than most (and especially US Airways d/b/a American) airlines of today.

    And, as long as American (and others) know they’ll enjoy a government sanctioned/enabled oligopoly where the only form of “competition” is over which airline can suck the most and get away with it (aka “1st at being worst”), with a blind eye turned towards impenetrable fortress hubs and/or hoarding/squatting of slots, gates and terminal facilities at congested airports, product degradations and the proliferation of bs nuisance fees, penalties and punishments that flyers know as the industry’s “Race to the Bottom” will continue to deepen and worsen.

    For if we want to end the industry’s blatant rip-offs and consumer abuses, then we MUST make COMPETITION GREAT again!

    “Oligopolies are ‘GREAT’!” – said by no one, except of course, the oligopolists/oligarch’s themselves⚠️ 😉

    The abysmal state of American Airlines, and the overall rapid decline in customer service is highly correlated with the excess consolidation over the past decade after Delta acquired Northwest in 2008; followed by United taking over Continental in 2010; Southwest acquiring AirTran the next year (2011); and US Airways taking over American in late 2013.

    That’s eight airlines becoming just four during those five years (2008-2013) alone, with yet another emerging potential competitor that was known for offering service better than nearly everyone else, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin licensed brand, Virgin American, taken out by Alaska Airlines two years’ ago (2017), just as Virgin America was on the cusp of success, with 30 Airbus A320neos and ten A321neos on order (some already delivered).

    If flyers want things to improve such that they’re (we’re) no longer taken for granted (at best) and/or no longer subjected to relentless rounds of ever worsening, badly degraded products with each passing season, all at higher and higher cost, then we must demand an end to the toxic industry cartel and its oligopolistic business model, preferably by market based solutions where new entrants can obtain gates, facilities and slots at congested airports via government intervention, when necessary and appropriate.

    But if not, then by vigorous regulatory enforcement of consumer protection; mandatory seat widths and row pitch minimums; capping of excess fees; and most especially vigorous anti-trust enforcement.

    Again, my preference is market based, where new entrants are assured of gates, terminal facilities and slots at congested airports – but if not, then something other than continued turning a blind eye towards the greed and arrogance of airlines like American, where because its leaders know they face few, if any, meaningful competitive threats beyond an occasional foray by an ultra low cost carrier here and there, or perhaps, JFK-LAX/SFO, they also know they can get away with selling crap so bad even its own leaders don’t bother flying (American’s [so NOT an] “Oasis” economy class cabins for example).

    For sure, it’s the lack of meaningful competition that’s the root of many ills for consumers/flyers in today’s airline industry.

    FOR. SURE.

  12. And yes, it’s “Virgin America” NOT “Virgin American” as seen in the above.

    Predictive text gremlins struck again!

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