Why Airlines Should Improve Their Coffee

Coffee fuels business travel, and most providers don’t understand that.

    Have you ever actually tried to drink the coffee on a US domestic airline? American’s new Airbus A321T flying between New York JFK and Los Angeles and San Francisco has a cappuccino machine in first class. I have only flown business class on this plane, though, so I’ve not had a decent cup of coffee on a US airline’s plane.

    Cathay Pacific makes a decent cappuccino but the airline won’t serve hot drinks when the seat belt sign is on. A little turbulence on approach to Hong Kong after a long overnight flight and having no access to coffee is another form of coffee fail.

    Delta got a lot of mileage out of its announced change to Starbucks this month.

    I wasn’t especially impressed.

    • United made the Starbucks investment for years, signing its first contract for it in 1995. Alaska Airlines started serving Starbucks in 2012.

    • Starbucks is hardly the high end of airline coffee. I’ve had Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee on both Asiana and ANA. No doubt Austrian does the best job with coffee, certainly in business class (versus the investment in high end coffee some carriers make in first).

    But it does suggest that branded coffee can be the sort of business decision a US airline decides makes sense.

    Retired United 777 captain and airline financial analyst Vaughn Cordle offers a case for airlines investing in better coffee.

    This is a big investment.

    • A major legacy airline likely spends $5 – $10 million a year on coffee.
    • Improving coffee would double the price.

    The business case Cordle makes for better coffee is multi-faceted:

    • Improve operational efficiency and reduce delays, by eliminating pilots stopping at Starbucks in the terminal on the way to the aircraft.
    • Improve employee morale, which in turn affects customer service. Better coffee is a product flight attendants can be proud of and reduces complaints they receive from customers.
    • Coffee is especially important on high yield business routes, the ‘first flight Monday morning’ consultant specials.

    Thus he concludes, “the additional costs will be more than be covered by higher earnings and an increase in firm value.”

    Now, I fly American most often domestically. I won’t drink their coffee (I haven’t tried the cappuccinos in first class on the A321T aircraft, I’ve only been in the business cabin). Perhaps the fact I fly them in spite of bad coffee is a reason they don’t need to make this investment, although Cordle suggests it would have financial benefits regardless of my purchasing decisions. I know I’d love to drink decent coffee onboard… with real creamer choices.

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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  1. Get a very good cup last week from DELTA! It was Starbucks. Very good. I even had a refill. In the past Delta and American coffee was not that great. Got great coffee in Austrian Air. They have a special coffee menu for Business/First class passengers

  2. Dunkin Donuts on JetBlue.

    Amazing how something so small in the overall scheme makes such an impact

  3. Unfortunately, I have tried the coffee on most airlines – it all pretty much tastes like luke warm water with a brown dry erase marker dipped in it. I try to pickup a less offensive cup in the terminal before boarding or stick with the HKG style milk tea on CX or bottled water.

  4. I think the United kona blend is not too bad. As Gary said, you would not consider flying United even if they had Blue Bottle or Intelligencia Coffee.

  5. The line at Starbucks in the United terminal at LAX always has crew waiting. Starbucks would do well to open stores in all united terminals.

  6. I would so rather drop $3 on a drip at the airport prior to boarding. Coffee in a styrofoam cup in coach or a proper cup in F is just too risky for spillage to me.

    I drink coffee every morning at home and have flown many, many, long flights over the past 10 years – never ordered coffee.

  7. Never flown J in the 321T, only Y and F, but surprised that they wouldn’t bring an espresso drink up to J from the F galley. I can’t imagine that the whole 8 pax have that thing pumping continuously from coast to coast…

  8. Starbucks or illy, it’s all still made with potable water. I’m not sure any airline’s coffee will ever be that good. But as you note, some is better than others. I’m all for improvement in the coffee department.

  9. Cordle doesn’t actually make a true financial argument in the article you linked. I would love to see an actual quantitative analysis as to whether or not better coffee actually improves firm value.

    My guess is that when you actually break it down, doubling an airline’s expense on coffee would not be an NPV positive project.

  10. Good coffee on a flight would be amazing, but I can’t imagine any airline would take on the expense despite Captain Cordle’s assessment. To produce a quality cup of coffee takes more than just spending cash on quality beans. It also means investing in barista’s or training flight attendants -which doesn’t seem realistic. An equipment upgrade would also be necessary. I’d be happy if more hotels improved their coffee game. Just stayed at Andaz Papagayo (thanks Chase Hyatt card) and was sorely disappointed in their coffee. Only one trained barista, no scales, only dark roasted (aka burnt beans- you know Starbucks) and steamed milk on espresso drinks needs work (layer of foam on a macchiato is gross). If you want to achieve a Starbucks level of drip, sure any airline could do that. But, I don’t personally consider that good coffee. That’s why when I travel I bring my own grinder, beans and aeropress.

  11. Yup. I’m gonna make my next flight choice based on coffee.

    Not loyalty mileage earning.

    Not service.

    Not price.

    In-flight coffee.

  12. I assume you are complaining about regular coffee. If you think that’s bad, try decaf on almost any domestic airline. It’s a powdered Sanka-like (does Sanka still exist) substance mixed with hot water that probably is not all that clean. Ugh.

  13. As some have pointed out already – good coffee is dependent on good water and proper (clean) equipment. Very hard to do on a flying aluminum tube.

  14. If we’re going to make improvements to onboard coffee, let’s go over to using french presses instead continuin to use those nasty drip brewers that are never cleaned out in the galleys.

  15. While I was on active duty during peace time, occasionally the battery went out to the field. Breakfast almost always was SOS on two biscuits and scrambled eggs. Coffee began with heated water in a large stock pot. A #10 can of Uncle Sam java was dumped into the water when it was hot enough, follow by egg shells. Supposedly the shells pulled the grinds to the bottom of the pot. Final step was a cook ladling out the coffee into a rubber made type dispenser with a spigot.

  16. Most U.S. airlines can’t get the basics down like having entertainment at each seat and food on flights and you’re complaining about not having cappuccino or “decent” (to you) coffee?


    However, since it’s U.S. airlines you’re talking about, they may just start to charge $5 for coffee. Which would make sense to them. And me.

  17. Ever since American and US Air merged the coffee has gone downhill. Wonder what else they are skimping on? Cleaning and maintenance?

  18. I’m a coffee fiend; I love good coffee but will drink bad coffee when it’s all that’s available (as a wise man once said, “the worst cup of coffee I ever had… was wonderful.”)
    Regarding cream, though: it can make bad coffee drinkable, and drinkable coffee good – but it ruins good coffee.

    (Lifetime best coffee EVER was on my honeymoon in Jamaica, 1991 – “Jablum” brand Blue Mountain. I’ve been trying ever since to duplicate, at any price, what the resort was pouring for free; as near as I can tell, export Blue Mountain is of a different grade than what domestic resort customers can buy. Thoughts?)

  19. I’m with you – OS (Austrian) does the best onboard coffee in their business class. They give you the Viennese coffee experience, or as much near as can.

  20. Typically, I try to grab a coffee enroute to my morning flights…not much for inflight coffee. I made an exception on a recent flight from from IAH to IST aboard a Turkish 777. I sipped a bit of tea before dropping off to sleep for the overnight flight but requested and received a freshly brewed espresso when breakfast was served the following morning. Actually a well brewed cup! Bravo for Turkish Airlines.

  21. it’s about the water.
    I’ve had coffee and tea on the same flight on domestic business class and they both had the same boiled cigar butt taste. Filters are not changed/maintained.

  22. I’m with colleen on this one. If the coffee served is enough of a differentiator to make you switch airlines, you probably have some addiction issues to work through!

    As an aside, I’m a physician and one of the tests we do requires patients to be off caffeine for a full 24 hours. It’s amazing (a) how many people can’t do it and (b) how many of those who can show up with features of acute withdrawal.

  23. Because of the contamination in the holding tanks on most aircraft it is advised that you never drink the tap water or coffee. Why do you think they serve water from bottles.

  24. United already has improved their coffee since they started serving a Hawaiian Kona blend.

    I’d much rather have their Kona blend than anything from Starbucks.

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