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 InsideFlyer.com, 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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Comments

  1. Hahahahaha…Completely disagree with you sir!! Not only are the airlines are charging and “overpricing “ for the absolute crap they serve these days, but 1st class that’s, domestic or not, are already waaaaay overpriced. Please, bo and spew these ridiculous ideas by yourself. If you want to throw your money into the wind, go ahead. Please, don’t give them any more bad ideas than they’ve already got!!!

  2. I’ve been pushing this idea for some time with letters to various Airline Customer Service Centers. All I ever get back is “thank you for your thoughts.” Hopefully your blog can get their attention.

  3. Novel idea: domestic airlines should stop routinely upgrading people to first class and therefore attempting to pawn off a cheap, mediocre meal and instead offer a quality meal to those of us who pay to sit up front

  4. The economics of this don’t work on most domestic flights. Most pax eat only because it’s marginally free (and they want their money’s worth) and some decline anyways. If it cost money, most would decline out of spite or lack of utilitarian need for a meal on a plane. I’d rather eat a meal two hours late than eat reheated airline junk. There’s no way there’s enough buy-on-board demand to support a high-quality foreign carrier style meal

  5. Would love to see this and a premium pay wine/champagne/liquor option . Would certainly pay for better food and booze in F.

  6. Agree with Esquiar. There is not enough demand to make this worth the logistical hassle for the airlines. You also add another layer of service complaints when the paid service isn’t available or not up to standard.

  7. Part of the problem with the quality of food right now is because food service workers are still in short supply. There is a wage premium for catering personnel in some places but there is little reason to work for an airline caterer when fast food pays about the same amount and is much more convenient. I was recently on a flight that was supposed to be catered but the caterer simply never opened for the early morning flights of multiple airlines.
    Second, many first class passengers have access to airline lounges which have food that is of similar or better quality.
    Third, the big 3 also are operating longhaul international flights that have catering similar to what they had pre-pandemic. They are willing to pay higher prices for catering for international flights where it is a necessity for all passengers as part of their brand which the non-EU/US airlines are doing. Airlines like Turkish and Qatar are trying to gain market share from (other) EU/US airlines but the economics will be just as challenged as it is for Emirates; there simply is not enough longhaul business travel at high enough fares to support profitable expensive premium service.
    Finally, there is no chance that the US domestic market will ever be opened to foreign carriers that do not use US workers at US wage rates any more than for that to happen in any other developed country. It simply is irrelevant to the US domestic market what foreign carriers do on their international routes, let alone their domestic routes which are very different than in the US.

    Consistency and generosity/quality with alcohol can help offset food cuts.

  8. With the quantity of irrops and misconnects, this would be a customer service and logistical nightmare.

  9. They should make the service available in economy also. Eating and seating are completely different things. If I am busy and want to fit a decent and healthy meal with a decent glass of wine into what would be downtime, I would happily pay whether my company is paying for “First” class, economy, or anything imbetween. Conversely if it’s a one hour flight at 11am, I don’t want a meal whether I have a big seat or small seat.

    This would be a further example of unbundling which people may not like but is an inexorable process.

  10. Did we not learn ANYTHING from the hotel industry? Sure, they’ll cut complimentary food service entirely…… AND raise prices.

    Dougie can do it and cite Gary as evidence that “this is what the customers wanted.”

    It’s the Holiday Season, don’t feed the Scrooge, Gary !

  11. I disagree, for the very same reason is that domestic onboard is crap because no competition from foreign airlines. They are only marginally better with international, but still far below international carriers.

    The big three would not put real quality onboard because, domestically, they don’t have to do so. Let them compete domestically with foreign airlines and watch them actually provide full first class service.

  12. When second class got meals it wasn’t something I’d feed to a dog.
    I remember how good coffee was on planes now you don’t even smell it. Rotten stuff. Selling meals? Nope. Tacky.

  13. I would rather eat at home before going to the airport or in the airport than give my money for food on any American airliner. Airline food just doesn’t cut it.

  14. I don’t need buy on board for FC. I would honestly be very happy with some veggie wrap that they serve in the SkyClub. Those can be actually pretty good as long as they weren’t sitting in water (like sometimes happens).

  15. I have a Delta One SFO-JFK trip in Dec, returning in AA Business. I’m worried about the crap I’m going to get, particularly on that almost 7-hour return, that I’ve stocked up on gormst “trail mix”, I’d gladly pay for a guaranteed good meal.

  16. Domestic first has 16 seats, give or take (more on a A321, less on a regional plane). Let’s say half of the passengers choose to buy food, so 8 meals. In the grand scheme of the bottom line, that’s a negligible amount of revenue. Plus, you have to consider the lost revenue from the food that goes to waste when it does not get purchased. In the end, it’s probably a wash.

  17. If there would be a corresponding drop in price then ok. But this will simply add ‘charge-for-everything’ in first class as well. It’s a slippery slope. Not a bad thought really, but it won’t be managed well, will be massively expensive and fare prices will not be reflective of an even further deteriorating product. At the same time, what about the last minute traveler? Or someone who gets moved to a different as a result of delay or cancellation? Assuming fully that airlines would ONLY cater flights that have been paid for, that first class passenger will be without. Pre-loading meals that are surrendered to first class passengers only with an additional cost is just a bad business model. It’s basically a ‘big front seat’ of Spirit.

    Sad that we are in an environment where we know that airlines (as most corporations) will not do the right thing and will simply look for any way to keep revenues high, but offer little to no product.

  18. Had a better meal on a 2.5 hour domestic Lufthansa flight than an 11 hour United Polaris. SMDH…

  19. Question – are you asking airlines to diminish their service and charge us the same price as they did before they take away the meals? I disagree with the premise. A high percentage of your readers are back to flying every week now that the risk of getting COVID is lessened and leave early in the morning and get home late at night – seldom getting more than a few hours sleep the night before travel, speaking for myself at least. It sure is nice to have a meal on that evening flight home after very long day.
    1. Generally First / Business class costs far more than main cabin. It is really an incentive to pay all the additional fare for first / business class travel if the airline offers a meal on long flights.
    2. It is a bit awkward to be eating dinner and have the person next to you not having the meal. Some may not feel that way but others of us do who maybe are a bit more compassionate.

  20. I have never understood why US carriers cannot serve a light meal in F of the quality of intra- Europe business class. I’d rather have that than what UA, AA and DL serve. It is one of the reasons I was sorry to see Virgin America get acquired.

  21. Are you frigging crazy? Why give the airlines even the inkling that they unbundle more stuff particularly in F. I’m basically done with following your blog.

  22. @ Gary — The great thing is that his time the airlines will have to suck it up without another bailout. Too bad for them and their crook CEOs.

  23. Interesting thought starter.
    @Gary, what valuation do you place on the food portion of first class flying? I’ve had this discussion with co-workers and my wife, they don’t necessarily agree with my cost component for food vs drink vs “the big seat.” Suffice to say, I still value the meal portion at maybe $20-25 of the purchase price of the ticket – maybe a transcon or near transcon flight (note, not their cost for the food/catering). I derive far greater value from the big seat, free drinks, better IFE (in many/most cases). What do you think?
    And I agree with several posters above…eat at a lounge, eat at home, eat at your destination.

  24. These are airlines, NOT restaurants. And given the problems with travel, including staffing, servicing, plane and slot availability, and the constant threat of weather “melt-downs”, the airlines need to concentrate on FLYING.
    You want to eat, pack a lunch.

  25. No, they wouldn’t have enough volume to make it profitable to get F level food. They’d have to charge $50, and few would buy.

    Better to improve Y good and serve that for free in F. I’ve often preferred a Zoe’s sandwich to AAs F offering on a mid con.

  26. Yeah, agree with the commenters saying that it would cheapen the FC experience to be nickel-and-dimed (even as compared to the status quo of cheapened FC experience due to barely edible food). Further, the catering is only half the battle: you also need FAs capable and motivated to prepare and present complex, delicate meals in a suitable manner, which seems far-fetched for many/most domestic airline crews IMHO.

  27. Not so sure I agree that because caterers can cater a few premium long-haul airlines operating ex-US with consistently good BOB meals that they’d be able – in the current staffing environment – to offer similar consistency on all the big three’s domestic flights over a couple hours. That’s a massive increase in capacity required. Should they? I think so. I’d buy it if the options were consistently good AND if the airlines consistently actually had the meals I paid for.

    Do you actually think AA would be able to pull this off given the focus on D0 etc. etc.? Not reliably enough for folks to feel like they’ll actually get the meal they paid for IMHO

  28. Too bad domestic F is full of poor salesmen who only fly doing their boss’s bidding and dont make enough to spend anything on flying thats not OPM.

  29. I’d love this – even if for just 3 hour plus flights

    The burger on UA is okay but something more refined would be great – European style

    But don’t know enough about the ecnomics

  30. 100% disagree. Yes- catering needs further improvement on flights over 700 miles in different ways but that should in included in the price of the ticket to help generate a greater “revenue premium”. I do like the idea of selling better/upgraded meals in coach as I’ve seen this done before with US Airways around 2011 (international routes only though).

  31. Now is not a good time.
    Fares are so extortionate, and we expect them to go even higher. Asking for extra cash for an already overpriced ticket could go quite wrong, quite fast.
    Moreover, many airport concessions are not open or they are understaffed. Purchasing food at the airport is not always an attainable goal.
    The US carriers are more than capable of serving quite good food, but they have not yet reached a point at which they see the profits from doing so.
    Passengers have revolted in the past. United attempted to switch to minimal meal service on East Coast transatlantic departures. That did not last; they returned to regular meals quickly. Likewise, frequent flyers have had a lot to say about ice cream sundaes. Cutting beverages and water in the main cabin was disastrous at US Airways. (If it was viable, none of the major US carriers would have beverage carts.)
    Nobody should board a plane for the dining experience, but a good meal makes people happy, it helps them feel that they are provided with quality service, and it helps pass the time. I am with Gordon Bethune on this: make it a worthwhile pizza.

  32. So, Delta is currently charging $2300 for a domestic F PHX-DAY, and you want me to pay for lunch? No (and don’t try to suggest that they’ll lower the price without the expectation of a meal….they won’t). You want to stop complimentary upgrades and charge a nominal fee for elite upgrades, fine.

  33. By all means YES! domestic first class under 4 hours should be BOB. Anything more than 4 hours, complimentary meals at proper mealtimes should be served.
    Alcohol should be charged. PERIOD
    a la carte pricing for extras like enhanced bedding, amenity kits, and meals.

  34. You’re assuming that just because you spend extra money on a meal, that that will somehow translate into a better and more high quality meal.

    I think we both know what would really happen though. The airlines would serve the same meals they are serving now, except there’d be a charge for them.

  35. So the standard slop included with the ticket price, but premium meals available for added cost on a pre-order basis? Ok that sounds not so bad, but….we are talking corporations here. What will happen is they will simply charge individually for the slop being served today. That’s a guarantee. A corporation will NEVER do the right thing and will ONLY look at the highest possible way to more profit. So if they think they can charge $15-20 for a “first class meal” which is the slop that fell off the coach cart yesterday, they’d do it happily. Don’t give them any ideas.

    It’s sad they can’t be trusted to do anything reasonable and decent. But they have proven they can’t pull this off.

  36. I strongly disagree! Excellent and nutritious meals should be part of first and business class fares. Meals are part of business expenses which include labor, fuel, rent, etc. I enjoy flying, and having delicious meals is part of the experience. Sadly, America’s airlines have cheapened onboard amenities. With 65 years of flying, I’ve had countless first-class meals on domestic flights. I vividly remember my initial American Airlines first-class LAX-SAT flight with outstanding onboard services including a sumptuous meal! So many more similar treats followed in succeeding years. As a Lifetime 1K with United, I’ve experienced diminishing onboard services of food and amenities. This includes Polaris since its inception over five years ago. While not at the same culinary standard as other recognized global airlines at the time, Polaris was a major shift. Prices for domestic premium air travel have greatly increased during the last year. United and other American legacy air carriers can do more to enhance passenger satisfaction including those in economy class. Provide a few more dollars for passengers! Recently, United’s CEO stated his desire for the airline “to be the best in the world.” I and other premium passengers welcome this statement. Sadly, thus far, it remains empty rhetoric. Words and actions have meaning!

  37. A tad bit off subject but in my recent years of flying, both as a pilot and passenger, it is my humble opinion that most Americans need to miss a gourmet meal . . . or two. The F and J meal is usually very good to graze on whereas Y meal is barely edible and usually seems to feature mystery meat and empty calories. And regarding the lack of premium wines and liquors, First World problem. Myself I’m more concerned about having the “world’s best” trained pilots regardless of ethnicity and gender.

  38. Hold on . . . I forgot about the hot fudge Sundae that used to be served in AA First Class. Now there are some empty calories that are definitely worth it.

  39. I like meal pre-orders and often use them on those airlines that offer them.

    It’s not just about quality of the food but also the choice. Realistically, having people choose from two or three options on board (with some of them running out early) guarantees a disappointment for many of the pax. I really love what Air Baltic does in economy – they offer large variety of meals to pre-order, you get many options and unless you have extremely strict preferences, there will be something for you. On top of that, since you pay for it, they don’t have to cut every cent of costs and the food is actually good.

    Give me that over the free crap and I’ll take it anytime. Having a meal on board is a great way to pass time, it’s just that most of what airlines offer these days is not enjoyable at all. Whatever the class of service is.

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