US Airlines Should Sell Food in Domestic First Class

I graduated college in 1996 and earned elite status with United Airlines for the first time in 1997. The very first time I was upgraded was on a Los Angeles – Washington Dulles flight and lunch was served in courses. I had an almond dusted shrimp plate as an appetizer followed by a steak for my entree and then dessert.

Come spring 2001 United was making cutbacks in their inflight catering spend and I remember the controversy among frequent flyers over their ‘gourmet’ cheeseburger being served at lunch. It was a good and substantive burger, not like what customers think of as an onboard burger today.

Even before the US Airways merger, here was an American Airlines dinner served onboard the 919 mile Washington National – Miami flight.

That was before meal service on American was US Airways-ed in September 2014. Things got so bad the airline started investing a little more in its meals less than a year later. I stopped eating inflight.

After several cuts to meal service. in 2018 United Airlines tried to eliminate meals altogether on flights under 4 hours outside of dinner hours. They rolled that back after just two weeks.

  • Airlines want to spend less on food
  • Especially after pandemic-era losses
  • But what if they’re missing a real revenue opportunity?

Nine years ago American introduced the ability to pre-order meals in first class. You’re just pre-selecting what they’d otherwise have onboard and assuring you get your meal choice. Then they added the ability to choose ‘special meals’ and those were higher quality than the rest of American’s domestic meal service. I recommended the Muslim meal, before they removed protein from them. (These meals were worth it even if ordering one meant the government would think you’re a terrorist.)

Airlines are scrounging for revenue, United raised first checked bag prices before the pandemic and isn’t doing anything more for customers in return. Why not look for opportunities to earn more money in ways that also add more value?

Airlines should offer paid buy on board in first class. Let you pre-order a premium meal for extra money. That way airlines can make more money off of customers who may be best-positioned to pay, a better strategy perhaps than higher checked bag fees for infrequent leisure flyers traveling in coach.

I’d happily spend for a meal that was actually good on a 3 hour flight. The only worry is that airlines would cut ‘included’ meals even further. And that’s certainly possible, but certainly isn’t necessary and really how much worse could they get?

I’d rather have a good meal that cost me something than what’s served today without extra cost. And U.S. airport caterers are clearly capable of pulling off good food. The food served on many Asian airlines, and on some European ones, can be quite delicious — even when the flights are departing the U.S.

ANA Ramen

Singapore Airlines Lobster Thermidor

Etihad salmon biryani

Singapore Airlines Dim Sum

This is logistically possible. Nine years ago Austrian Airlines introduced paid pre-order meals in coach from caterer DO & CO at the 15 euro price point.

It should be:

  1. easier to do this in first class with fewer passengers to manage
  2. possible to invest more in food at a lower price since customers would opt for this instead of a first class meal — the airline generates revenue and saves cost at the same time.

Raising more money for airlines by delivering a better product to customers is a better and more sustainable business model in a competitive industry than trying to charge more for the same or lesser product.

Do you agree – should airlines make this change? Would you buy a premium meal in domestic 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. Another class act post! If Gary were in charge JetBlue goes shuts down their business , we start hiring less experienced pilots and airlines start charging for first class meals… ALL GREAT ideas!!

    This post makes clear how little this writer knows about the industry and airlines management Since when…and tell me ONE TIME charging for a service made it better. Coach meals went from hot, half decent and free to cold stale sandwiches once they started charging.

  2. As a diabetic, I would be very interested in buying a better meal in any class of service. These days, I’d be happy to buy a boxed meal offered on a flight at any time of day, if they were of good enough value.
    This is an especially important thing if my connection becomes so close that I can’t even stop to grab something on the way to my next flight.

  3. The only worry is that airlines would cut ‘included’ meals even further. And that’s certainly possible…

    Possible? I guarantee it.

    And then, once they stop providing free food altogether, the “better” food will quickly revert to the current slop. You’ll just pay for it (or not — they’ll be happy to give you nothing for the price of the current ticket). And they’ll expect you to THANK them for it.

  4. > Do you agree – should airlines make this change? Would you buy a premium meal in domestic first class?

    Great question.

    US Domestic First Class no longer exists on our national carriers. You can get it on e.g. JSX, NetJets, but that’s not much of a choice.

    The first time any FA tells me I nee to shell out 15 Euros I’ll try not to bust out laughing. That’s not a currency accepted on ANY us air carrier, domestic first class (LOL) aside.

    You fly much more than I do and care about the soft product more, so I can only opine that the OPTION to have the meals is just logistics and space and heating and service and time. I don’t know at what price point it becomes worthwhile for the air accier, nor at what price point you’re willing to pay for it, but where those two vectors intersect means there’a s business opportunity.

  5. Thats a bad idea. Airlines already sell certain food options in economy based on flight distance and it rarely sells. Only people with status get it cause they know they get for free.
    What airlines should do is make everyone pay. Status or not. If you are not sitting in first then you pay for everything

  6. Almost all airline food now consists of meats that can be braised (like short ribs) and such. Does any US airline serve the classic airline chicken breast anymore?

  7. Well plenty of people are dumb enough to pay for an upfront seat that they used to get comped so why not do the same with meals now?

  8. Do you just write down whatever random stuff comes to your head and post it this page without any thought?

    US airlines can’t even manage to consistently source pre-packaged BoB snacks in economy. How in the world do you think they are going to manage bespoke meals in F?

  9. Paying wouldn’t increase quality. Competition increase quality. The only thing keeping airlines in check on this is the fact that other airlines might be doing it better. That’s it. There is no other solution, in general.

  10. I fly AA alot in F. It does not come with lounge access (except transcons) and you need to pay for wifi. If you keep reducing the product, you may get more people just interested in buying an extra leg room seat verse the 2-3x the ticket price for F conpared to Y.

  11. Good idea for domestic flights. I always pre-order special meals on inter-continental flights. Domestic 1st class/business class has become a mixed bag of attitude and poor choices. It would be better if every seatback came iwth a *bucks and Mikky D’s app ordereing screen. That’s what most passengers normally eat, anyway.

  12. So instead of the airlines repairing the mistakes they’ve made by improving meal offerings you suggest rewarding airlines by handing them more money? I disagree on this one.

  13. I agree for domestic first only. The fear is of course the airlines would happily adopt this model (if shows success) to Intl flights as well.

  14. I can’t see how the economics of this would work for either the airline or the passenger. Because you aren’t catering for everyone, that makes the price go up to a point where passengers wouldn’t be willing to pay it. It would also raise the cost of the included meal too as it complicates ordering and delivery. If tried, I can’t see any result other than a very limited selection at a high price, poorer quality included meals, and frequent service mistakes.

  15. Why exactly am I buying a business class/first class ticket for thousands of dollars and then buying dinner on flight. That’s insane. Most people spending at that price point either expect a real business class meal and drink selection or they’ll just eat at Centurion Lounge or Admirals Club

  16. Brian hit it on the head

    A Y class ticket for thousands less makes more sense almost all the time

    The F class tickets are supported almost exclusively with corporate dollars

  17. It’s very expensive to stock food, certainly more expensive than for passengers to bring their own food. That’s why buy on board food is more expensive than buying at Safeway or Kroger.

    I look at it 2 ways. Either luxury and no need for passengers planning or nickel and dime. the former is great food, attentive service, free food and drinks, free baggage, re-accommodation in case of delayed or cancelled flights, etc. The other way is just basic transportation except a bigger seat with everything else paid for.

  18. The big three are already trying to be too many things to too many people. Let’s not give them one more thing to manage or one more way to start nickle and diming customers to death. Oh, and I work for one of the big three. I can’t see this ending well if we tried it. At least not for our customers.

  19. I’m leaning to the “Gary thinks this would be nice” aspect. Not that there’s anything wrong with his thought But Better to adjust one’s expectations.

    My last leg of last week’s Round the World trip was AA MIA DCA Having planned Flagship Dining Breakfast, I went light on the Flight breakfast and pre ordered the fruit and cheese plate for the 10 am departure. The domestic first class meal offered was grain bowl or chicken breast. Seat mate picked the chicken. They didn’t touch it it looked so bad. My F&C was nice. Quantity over quality on cheese though Good side salad sponge cake dessert (skipped). So yes chicken just don’t order it 🙂

    BTW Flagship Dining opens at 1 pm 🙁 Omelet station and bacon substituted well Also no champagne until 8 am

  20. I guess I don’t have “that” problem as I cannot afford to fly FC. And I nearly always purchase something to bring along in my humble coach seat to munch on which is as tasty and fresh as I can get it (either from home or purchased on the concourse). Airline food is “blech,” anyway, and overpriced to boot. I’d only be tempted to try the latter if I were on a “bucket list” trip in FC on, say, Emirates or Singapore…’nuff said.

  21. No. I buy first class or business employer. Not willing to pay additional. In the last 6 months meals have gotten better…not what they used to be..but better. And I can choose my meals 30 days before departure.

  22. As a long time business flyer, now retired, I purchase full price first class travel for almost all flights. I am not a picky eater and consider the offered meal part of what I paid for. I doubt I would pay even more for an upgraded offering. For me, this is a non-starter suggestion.

  23. I totally disagree! I have flown over 4 million miles with multiple airlines and I am 2 million miler with Delta and have had diamond status for years. I am in first class often so maybe I know what I’m talking about! All your suggestion does gives the airlines another revenue source. It will start great initially, but stay assured that the quality will eventually diminish however the charge will stay!

  24. Pax who buy 1st class don’t want to be hit with so many buying options. They want it all-inclusive…otherwise they feel nickel & dimed. I’d be ticked if I had to spend extra for a top-shelf liquor offering. Better to not to offer it at all, then to be annoyed bc I didn’t buy it.

  25. It’s bad enough that some airlines charge you for WiFi in F/J when others offer this for free in coach and some have done so for years. I flew B6 in coach last year to London and the food was as good as I’ve had in F/J on other airlines, I imagine Mint must’ve been nicer still (and mint on Transcons too). Clearly providing half decent food can be done and not for a high margin given B6 is not a premium carrier so to speak. If you’re paying 4x as much for a ticket as in economy why would you want to pay even more to eat! You get to the point of what am I actually paying extra for other than the space, I may as well fly coach and choose an exit row. If the airlines want to save money then they should have people pre order, then they know exactly how much to stock thus avoiding extra weight / fuel burn and wasted food (another 1st world problem that really needs tackling)

  26. What do I think, keep writing your blog and leave the business side to the big boys.

    This idea is one of the worst ever and it would like go down like this.

    Airline: But your premium 1st meal for only $19

    Customer: Are you kidding me, I’m spending 3k for this flight and they want $19 more?!

    Airline: Mr Customer, sorry you feel this way, because you think you’re our biggest and best elite and feel entitled, he’s 5000 miles and we’ll add this as an elite benefit.

    Customer: I just bought, used my elite benefits for a premium meal and it was far from Premium. Steak over cooked, pasta dry, etc

    Airline: Oh Mr Customer, we’re so sorry and to make up for your horrible non-premium meal, let us give you 10k miles to make up for it.

    Rise and repeat for a couple weeks or month and then….

    Airline CFO and CEO: who the hell thought of the horrible idea to sell premium meals that have now cost us more (internally everything has a cost) then we’ve made and has lead to an even a lower NPS score the we already have?

    On the next episode of “Premiere Meals for Sale”, watch as Jon gets fired for reading an idea on a blog and see how he loses his house and wife.

  27. I like the concept of by on board but tend to think the execution would be challenging and ultimately disappointing.
    I think all inclusive makes more sense in first class. Personally, I would gladly pay $10 more per ticket for an uptick in quality. I don’t need a “fine dining” experience in domestic first but a quality meal would be greatly appreciated.

  28. Airlines in the food business? Not a good idea. You go to a restaurant for food.

  29. This is a terrible idea. As others have noted, this will provide airlines with the incentive to make non-revenue food as awful as possible — if not remove it altogether — in an effort to get passengers to buy up to edible food. No. A first or business class seat should come with a good meal. Competition among the airlines can accomplish this, not more nickel and diming of passengers.

  30. So pay more for something you are already paying for? First class/business seats don’t cost the airlines any appreciable amount more than economy class. Yet flyers pay substantially more for the amenities that are offered. The meals and drinks add maybe $20 to the cost, and the free luggage costs them another $35-$50. So premium seating costs the airlines less than $100 more but flyers pay at least $200 more on a short-haul flight and much more on long-haul or international flights. It is already a questionable value, and now you propose that I pay more for something I already paid more for? No thanks.

  31. The chances that the F food on any US airline is going to be Do&Co quality is zero. Heck, I’d be happy with Pret a Manger quality.

  32. I’m a United 1K and always fly First Class domestically and Business Class internationally. I think the airlines should eliminate ALL meals in ALL classes and just serve pre-packaged snacks…even on overseas flights. The quality of the food and the potential exposure to listeria and salmonella don’t justify eating the food. Flight attendants will tell you that 80% of them don’t eat airplane food…that tells you everything!! Let people bring their own food. There are lots of good options at the airports.

  33. At the risk of being contrarian to most of the commenters, I like the idea of paying for quality. That’s why I pay for streaming subscriptions, and don’t watch “free” (ad-supported) TV, which is just garbage**.

    My only question is how can we ensure that the quality stays high?

    ** Ad-supported media is trash because the TV stations sell more ads when they have more viewers, which they obtain by “engaging” viewers (i.e., making viewers angry — that’s why *ALL* the ad-supported “news” businesses (CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc.) are peddling trash.

  34. Bad idea!

    AA can’t get the catering right on a simple DFW-LAX flight, much less manager multiple pre-order meals in F.
    Not uncommon to leave DFW with no catering for Y (ice/pretzels etc) on a LAX flight.

  35. I think that the time has come to stop serving mess as ls on planes.

    This will save on plane weight and personnel on board and on the ground.

    Its really time for airlines to start cutting out all unnecessary costs.

  36. Thanks for giving the airlines an idea on how they can screw the customers more

  37. Spoken like someone flying in front for free (miles, comps, etc) as opposed to those of us paying for the privilege and who don’t need to pay $20 more to get something decent.

  38. The problem is that most domestic. First class seats are filled with FREE upgrades. First class would be different and airline would even add more first class seats is customer were willing to actually pay.

  39. I’m sure newly minted MBAs in Chicago, Euless, Atlanta and Sea Tac pitch this often in order to make a name for themselves. Their prezzy includes words like ‘touch point’ and ‘value added’ with surveys that are manipulated to support their talking points.

    Having worked in the belly of the beast I can tell you it’s another ‘fail point’ that’s just going to p*ss your most valued customers off. Every airline has a handful of flight kitchens and that’s where catering happens. Depending on the airline, even things like ice aren’t available in major cities with relatively small operations. That upsold brekkie on a morning SEA flight would have been loaded in DFW or ORD the night before. Let’s focus on getting what is already promised right before committing to some a la carte moonshot.

  40. On a recent DFW to DCA flight the food in First was so bad I complained to AA customer service. I stated I could have bought better quality food in the 7-11 Store in DFW. I also elaborated on the meals AA used to serve prior to being US Airwaysed and that the food and customer service of the AA First Class product did not warrant the prices being charged for a seat. But to charge for a better food product just means the existing food options will disappear but ticket prices will stay the same. Consumer pays extra to get a meal. There have been many times I have had crazy busy days with no time for lunch or preflight meal. Those times I want some kind of meal offering on board because when the plane lands, restaurants even in hotels are often closed. The other factor is if you order and pay for a meal what happens when you miss your flight, you change your flight at the last minute, or the flight is cancelled. This idea is a disaster and will only allow the airlines to make more money for the same sorry service.

  41. Funny — the images are all of FREE meals from airlines that don’t do free upgrades.

    The problem is elsewhere–on the revenue side. Too many opportunities to be upgraded means that people who would buy business outright instead buy economy with the knowledge they’ll likely get to fly in business class. I am sure you know plenty of people that fit this description.

    What you are peddling is a loop cycle — even less people would pay for business class if there’s one less thing to make life better. And less.revenue translate in less everything.

    But of course it’s nothing new: Spirit does something similar, and its return on investment is awful.

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