Why First Class Falls Short: The Shocking Truth About U.S. Airline Meals Versus The Rest Of The World

Increasingly, airline customers have been willing to spend more money for a better experience. It used to be that people booked on schedule and price and were willing to take whatever they had to in order to get where they’re going as long as things operated reasonably on time. That’s no longer the case, yet even premium airline products haven’t adapted, at least domestically.

The U.S. has some very long flights – over 3,000 miles each way even – the equivalent of Paris to Dubai. Yet airlines treat their domestic premium cabins as an afterthought, in ways airlines throughout much of the world do not.

Outside of so-called ‘premium’ routes like New York – Los Angeles, you’re likely to find this chicken or what I think is pasta on board an American Airlines flight:

And on an American Airlines regional jet, for a flight time greater than three hours even, you’ll get a packaged snack box instead of a meal. American increasingly relies on these regional jets, which don’t have ovens. Yet before the pandemic they served plated cold meals. They kept the Covid-era cardboard even as customers look to pay for something better.

This is not to pick on American. I’ve been getting the same meals up front on United for years.
And earlier this year I tried the Delta Air Lines meatballs, which many have said is Delta’s best domestic first class meal choice and it was ‘meh’ at best.

JetBlue does a nice job with its premium ‘Mint’ product, but that’s on a limited number of routes. For a true domestic first class offering, Alaska outperforms competitors by a lot. (Don’t even make me conjure of memories of United’s burger).

Alaska Airlines Burger

Alaska Airlines Dessert

U.S. airlines need to vary meals by region and direction; rotate those meals quarterly; and change them completely annually – at a minimum – or else you’re eating the same meals flight after flight, even on the same trip, and certainly week after week. It’s how things used to work even in the U.S. but carriers now keep meals around for ages.

By contrast, a reader passes along a photo of their Air France business class meal on the one-hour Paris to London Heathrow flight.

British Airways is hardly known for its food, but I’ve received these from British Airways on that same 216 mile route.

I even received a choice of meals from Qatar Airways on a 200 mile flight.

On a short two and a half hour Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo Narita to Shanghai, I’ve gotten a full meal. This one, for instance, was followed separately by an individual-sized container of Haagen Dazs ice cream.

One of the best meals I’ve ever had on a plane was on a 1,037 mile Singapore Airlines flight. This seafood laksa was incredible.

And how about a coursed meal that begins with satay on Malaysia Airlines in short-haul business class?

Airlines in Europe are offering more on one-hour flights than U.S. carriers provide on six and seven hour flights – to customers willing to pay for something better. That’s a combination of food spend and simply caring about the details of what you’re serving.

Airlines who simply check a box of needing a meal, rather than digging into the details not just of what’s being served but what the supply chain execution looks like and what the plating looks like aren’t going to get a decent product for their investment.

There’s really no excuse for what U.S. airlines serve their premium customers. If you tell me that U.S. airlines offer upgrades (increasingly few and far between and close to departure) then make better meals available by pre-order only, 72 hours in advance of travel. And sell better meals in coach! (Air Canada will sell leftover premium meals.) I’d even buy up for something decent rather than getting stuck with what’s currently served in front.

As a bonus, this would help to reduce lounge overcrowding since passengers would be able to get a meal that they can eat while on the plane. Airlines have been moving in the opposite direction, trying to feed passengers on the ground rather than in the air. But lounge overcrowding makes that unpleasant much of the time, and works best in dedicated business class lounges which are unavailable to most premium passengers flying domestically in any case.

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. I agree with Rob H. I’ve almost entirely stopped flying domestic; if I can’t drive there or have a good flight experience, it takes a lot to convince me that it’s worth going there. Even in FC, domestic flights have become too close to one of Dante’s levels of Hell. And the food does, indeed, matter.

    The lounges have become more important than ever, due to the frequent delays & layovers; on a recent long layover at CDG we had free wifi, lunch & showers. Meals, meanwhile, do matter to us as we fly most often from California to France. Going next to Portugal & flying AF again, due to both product quality & flight choices. And we’re paying, not using points.

  2. The idea of being able to preorder better quality meals for passengers that are actually paying to seat in a premium cabin is reasonable. Then the passengers doesn’t show up and airline caters 100% meal count , so how do you solve that ?
    I can’t comprehend why somebody would need a meal on a 200 miles flight ?

  3. Airlines are loathe to spend any money on those who receive free upgrades, so for many years it was understandable that the soft product on domestic first sucked. Now that the vast majority are paid tickets, the disconnect between premium expectations and reality is more problematic. At least DL seems to understand that their first class cabin is selling more than just a big front seat.

    @Eric what if the 200 mile flight leaves at 11:45? Flight time may only be 25 minutes, but with taxi/takeoff you are probably looking at a boarding time of 11 and an arrival time of 1. What if this flight were a connection? Plenty of reasons why it’d be more convenient to eat en route.

  4. The emphasis on airline food still perplexes me. If eating is so important, I tend to eat prior to travel or buy something at the airport or grab something in a lounge. Airline food has always been the punchline of jokes. Now that more and more airlines are upping their food game, one would think that the US airlines would take note and at least try to offer something other than what often looks like slop. They don’t have to because Americans are a captive audience and put up with below par service, food.

  5. The only thing ‘premium’ in US domestic travel (and often, international) is the carrier puff-piece promotion. They set expectations on which they don’t even try to follow through.

  6. I’ve flown economy across the world and the U.S. airlines are the absolute worst. Even when you are traveling on a major airline like Delta or United, you get no hot food in domestic no matter how long the flight is. All you get are some worn out pretzels and drinks to choose from.

    The U.S. is just so far behind that it’s a shame. Compare this with other carries like Thai, Air India, Garuda Indonesia etc and you get perfect and tasty hot meals even on the shortest of flights.

    Overall the behavior of flight attendants is very indifferent and rude as well in the U.S.
    No wonder there are so many videos on YouTube trashing our entire aviation system. We are now a laughing stock to the world.

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