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 controvery 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 over the past year United Airlines tried to eliminate meals 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 with higher oil prices
  • But what if they’re missing a real revenue opportunity?

Six 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 are higher quality than the rest of American’s domestic meal service. I recommend the Muslim meal. It’s worth it even if that means the government will think you’re a terrorist.

Airlines are scrounging for revenue, United raised first checked bag prices and isn’t doing anything more for customers in return. Why not look for opportunities to earn more money by adding 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. I’d rather have a good meal that cost me something than what’s served today without extra cost.

U.S. airport caterers are 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. Six 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.

Raise more money for airlines, deliver a better product to customers, 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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. I’m for it. The company would pay for the travel meal and I would eat better perhaps with more choice.

  2. The airlines would then be admitting that they are serving sub-par offerings on a ticket that already cost the buyer $$$$. If you’re going to buy a premium ticket, the food should match the supposed level of service included in the price. Although, I suppose I wouldn’t be totally opposed to something similar to what many restaurants do with their pre-fixe menus, where there may be a $10 supplement for a higher end steak or lobster entree. If the airlines offered such an upgrade, I believe many people would do it, but still seems a bit ridiculous if the price of the ticket was already $1,000+. WiFi should be included in the ticket too, quite frankly. Even if it means losing that extra $ from their business travelers.

  3. I think it would be a tough sell. If they price the upgraded meal low, it seems like a lot more to manage for the airline for too small a revenue increase. If they price it at say $25, I think most people would just eat before they board at a real restaurant. I’m ORD based, and no $25 airline lobster is going compare to $12 worth of Tortas Frontera. Sure, there are the business travelers who would pay, but they are also the most likely to switch flights. How would you ensure they still receive their meal if that grab the early ORD-SFO flight?

    If they are going to try and grab extra revenue inflight from 1st class I’d explore better booze/wine selection for an upgraded charge. I think more passengers would pay extra for a better brand of alcohol or a drinkable red wine than for a quality meal they feel they should be getting anyways.

  4. I’d be worried it’s a first step on a slippery slope. If they start charging for a premium meal in F, why not also charge for good wine, or for any alcohol, or for an aisle seat, or to have your jacket hung up, or for early boarding?

    As a practical matter, doesn’t the smaller cabin make it harder, not easier? With a cabin of just 12 or 16 (or just 8!) seats, airlines regularly fail to get the mix of just two free meal choices right (sorry sir, all we have left is the pasta). Adding multiple premium choices to mix makes it even harder. Pre-ordering could solve it, but of course, that offers nothing to the many folks getting upgraded inside 24 hours or buying the upgrade at the gate.

  5. Actually not a bad idea at all ! I would certainly partake. This might also be a nice way to spend the airline incidental credits that come with certain credit cards . Heck , I would even love the opportunity to pre purchase a bottle/split of premium wine /champagne .

    That being said , I think this could end up being a logistical nightmare in the case of IROP that could cause cancellations and misconnects. Would passenger be entitled to refund in those situations ? Food for thought 🙂

  6. I am a bit conflicted on this.

    No doubt I like the over the top LH, EK and CX first class meals. And I can even settle for far less.

    But if US airlines were to charge the price is costs to execute a full meal at 30,000 feet, it would surely be a sum that I would rather spend on the ground for something that would no doubt be superior. At bottom, I do not fly to have a dining experience.

  7. I’m still confused why it’s an expectation at all for an airline to need to feed you on a 2hr DCA-MIA flight. Any flight under 3.5-4 hours, the expectation should be adults are responsible for feeding themselves (and their dependants). I don’t have a problem with airlines selling buy on board sandwiches, salads, etc, but how fat have we become that we’re bemoaning the lack of a multi-course overly salted “meal” while confined to a metal tube for a few hours?

  8. Gary, you of all people should see what the airlines would do with this idea. It’s very roughly analogous to the Basic Economy bait-and-switch: They’ll end up offering even worse meals or maybe just snacks for free in first. And they’ll charge for basically the same mediocre meals they now offer for free, with maybe some very slight frills to make them seem better.

  9. I almost feel like if American came forward and said “we are raising the price of all domestic first class flights by $40 across the board and for that, you will receive an enhanced dining experience and free wifi,” people wouldn’t mind. The one-time impact may sting a little, but $40 on a $1,000 ticket is a rounding error on the typical expense report. The improved experience would be make it worthwhile.

    But I’m guessing they won’t do it until Delta does…so…come on, DL!

  10. I disagree. First Class should be a luxury product. Luxury products have high margins (they’re basically a rip-off, but people like them). The right strategy is to make it difficult to upgrade to first class, charge high prices, add amenities (like edible food) and make high-end customers feel superior to the riff-raff back in coach. Where there’s not demand for such service, reduce first class seating and add coach seats. Think about it: how many people drive expensive cars that provide only marginal improvement over regular cars? That’s the revenue-enhancing first class model.

  11. Gary, you ask, “Do you agree – should airlines make this change? Would you buy a premium meal in domestic first class?” There’s no simple and specific answer to that. Clearly it depends upon both the options available to me, as well as the price tag. It also depends upon the timing of the flight. For instance, a flight departing SFO at 12:54 pm Pacific and arriving at JFK at 9:21 Eastern would be a prime candidate for lunch (I’ll have dinner in NYC). OTOH, a flight departing from SFO at midnight and arriving at 8:30 in the morning, probably not. In general, however…

    My *main* problem with this idea is that I, too, remember when EVERY airline checked bags for free and the meals served onboard were at a minimum “very good.” (Yes, yes, I know: “It was all so different before everything changed.”) I never thought I’d turn into a curmudgeon as I reach 65, but there *is* still a part of me that balks at having to pay for things that used to be free. Granted, the food service on US domestic flights is no longer “very good” — heck, today’s fare usually¹ doesn’t rise above “fair” and sometimes simply ranks as “inedible” — and as it stands today, your options are EITHER getting something to go from within the airport, meaning you’ll have something at ambient temperature when you’re ready to eat (unless you’re at the airport early enough, and your flight short enough, that an airport restaurant is a better option), OR you’re stuck with airplane food, AND neither option is all the appealing.

    ¹ I would have to say that jetBlue MINT defies this trend, as did the dearly departed Virgin America.

  12. Absolutely, Steve !!!!
    Gary, come on — your helping the airlines plan their next great bait-and-switch. Soon it will be no meals in first, just the opportunity to pay even MORE for what will inevitably be no better (or only slightly better) food.
    Here’s a radical idea: Maybe just serve decent food…

  13. @Andrew and @Steve are absolutely correct. Airlines will begin offering the most horrible free/“included” meals “with the expectation that customers will buy up” to overpriced premium meals.

    Are lavatories next with reduced-size lavatories that… oh, never mind.

  14. I think logistically it would be difficult. Especially the bag of deplorables aircraft with only one catering would have to come with a cookbook , and every meal would have different heating require,rents.
    Heck, even most of the US airways flight attendant still have a hard time serving meals on the flights. I can’t even imagine how they would pull off serving several different entrées on one flight.

  15. Gary!! You just sold us out!!! I can already see Dougie-Poo and Scotty-Doo salivating over this. Just remember, “Nothing is too good for our Premium Domestic Passengers, so let’s give them NOTHING!”

    We just need to figure out how to run our airlines, without having to deal with those pesky, demanding distractions-Passengers?!

    You of all people should know better than to put these kind of ideas in those two “How can we screw the passengers next?” heads.

    Shame, Shame, Shame on you!!

  16. I think the Asian (and European longhaul) model is better: stop giving the product away for free to dudes in beachware and flip-flops due to “status” and instead invest in a product that’s interesting to those who can afford private jet travel. There’s a lot more money there.

  17. No way.. Selling “good” food admits what is currently offered sucks plus creates service, logistics, and probably traing issues. KISS.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *