Why First Class Meals Matter, And American Airlines Is Headed The Wrong Direction

American Airlines is dropping meals on most domestic flights that are over 2200 miles as well as short haul international. These flights, that have been receiving single tray meal service in first class throughout the pandemic, will get a fruit and cheese plate instead.

Does Meal Service Matter Right Now?

Lucky at One Mile at a Time argues this is not a big deal and specifically disagrees with my assertion that “a strong inflight experience is more important than ever.”

Some commenters felt that meals don’t matter, ‘just pack a lunch’ which isn’t the easiest thing to do without refrigeration, with TSA liquid rules, and carry on limits not to mention that with connecting flights you’re talking about the airline hoping people will pay for first class and the premium service they’re selling doesn’t include a meal on a travel day that can stretch over 12 hours.

Customer Experience Matters More Now Than Before The Pandemic

To be clear, my argument isn’t that meals alone drive choice of airline. However,

  • Product may have mattered less, even though there was more product investment, when planes were full – chase one passenger away and the airline fills the seat with someone else albeit maybe at a marginally lower fare. That’s basically the strategy American was pursuing before the pandemic (their own data shows frequent flyers were moving away from the airline)

  • Now with empty seats to fill airlines will actually have to compete with customers. In contrast it made sense to drop service in April when only those who absolutely needed to travel were doing so, and as flights were being pulled from the schedule.

  • When we’re talking about meals the difference here doesn’t fall into the ‘nice to have’ bucket, it’s flights over 2200 miles that have lost meals. Someone flying Philadelphia – Los Angeles – Honolulu in first class gets no meal. That’s a problem with few options open in terminals, and removes incentive for customers to buy first class.

Lucky says seat blocking matters more but American Airlines isn’t doing that either and without meals you might as well just buy two seats instead of buying first class, it’s cheaper but that’s not better for the airline.

To be sure there’s less premium demand with business travelers not in the air – that’s the argument for a cheese plate instead of a meal on 900 mile flights. But those aren’t the flights we’re talking about here.

What is someone buying first class connecting through Los Angeles to Hawaii going to think when they board and are surprised to find there’s no meal? What will that do to repeat purchases, the airline’s reputation among other potential customers, and the ability to sell premium seats?

American’s Bigger Strategic Move

Now’s as good a time as any to leak the new American Airlines livery, I suppose:

Copyright: boarding1now / 123RF Stock Photo

You might argue ‘but American Airlines still service complimentary drinks (on request) in first class’ while at Spirit you have to pay for them, but even that’s hit-or-miss. Many flight attendants don’t read their service memos, and learn what they’re supposed to be doing via rumor on Facebook (which is often wrong).

If American is going to offer a product that’s more or less Spirit Airlines Big Front Seat then they are going to be facing Spirit Airlines pricing. That’s the direction their President told us they were headed two years ago anyway.

The problem for American Airlines – with their relatively high cost structure, and greater debt than any other airline – is that they need to earn a revenue premium relative to the industry or they’re going to fail. They’re never going to earn a revenue premium without a superior product. If they can’t earn a revenue premium even with a better product, that’s an argument for giving up entirely, taking what assets they have now and calling it a day rather than an argument they can earn their way out of the crisis.

Yes This First World Problem Matters

Whether or not you get meal service in first class may not matter compared to people dying of Covid-19, and by the way it didn’t matter before the pandemic next to the threat of war in the Mideast or any number of other real crises. However American Airlines is loading itself up with $40 billion in debt, receiving government-subsidized loans and grants, the future of the airline and whether it’s making itself uncompetitive (at a time other airlines like JetBlue ramp up meal service) matters to investors and taxpayers.

And what airlines are doing to bring back travel in this country matters too. Furthermore as a consumer-focused site, helping people understand what they’re getting when faced with the choice of buying a coach ticket, two coach tickets, or first class is important – otherwise American Airlines will be duping passengers into buying up to first class, unaware that it doesn’t mean what they think it means.

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. AA continues to give me reasons to NOT fly them vs. giving me a reason TO fly them. Must have missed that lesson in business class…

  2. Just a great post!

    Lucky doesn’t realize that its ridiculous to forego service on a 5 hour flight (and what if there are delays and you are on board for 7-8 hours?) In first.

    And is it so awful to want to be treated with courtesy and feel special if you purchase first class?

  3. What’s the deal w that guy calling himself “Lucky”?

    A silly nickname or is there a backstory?

    Can someone clue me in?

  4. I was totally with this post and comments until someone said buying domestic F on a US carrier was supposed to make one feel special…. Maybe in the 1980s?

  5. This has been AA’s game for years now: Provide LCC service at LCC/FSC prices and milk the AA brand for all it’s worth. To be fair it works to a certain extent. My boomer parents are 5MM ExPlat and diehard AA loyalists. They don’t understand that it’s really US Airways under the hood and that AA’s best days are behind them. They complain about the diminishing quality but still firmly believe that AA is superior to their immediate competitors. Consumers like them are slowly dying out and it won’t be long before AA’s bipolar business model implodes on itself.

  6. Another fine AA bashing post by Gary. I think he’d be happy if AA just go bankrupt. Pissy that his fat a$$ can’t get a meal in FC. Who wants to eat that crap? Especially in the environments we’re in right now. Eating and drinking while sitting next to a random person. God knows where s/he has been for the past two weeks. Not to mention FC is mostly filled by upgrades and nonrevs these days, and not actual paid FC ticket.

  7. So, am I missing something? Atypical? Born 1950. Was Delta Diamond after the centuries turned. Don’t need to fly as much before covid, and now very careful. Grew up flying AA. Knew they had really become USAir. … Now I believe it. Can afford to choose. Certainly will not buy a first class seat from a retailer who won’t treat me acc to the price. … Demographically, I have become irrelevant to the carriers?

  8. AA’s only redeeming quality in domestic flights is their Flagship First class to JFK.

  9. I’m so disappointed by this/what it means for things to come.
    I was hoping the JetBlue partnership meant they were serious about turning things around, but this is bad.

    When traveling on a 5+ hour flight, things can go wrong and the option of a meal is important. I do pay for business class on transcon, and while I understand they are continuing meal service on the premium routes, this points towards other cost cutting in the future, including potentially decreasing meal quality on the premium routes.

  10. If they are going to do this they really should go full Ryanair and just charge for food.

    I flew discount airline Vueling in Spain earlier this year and I still remember the flight fondly. It was early morning and I was hungry and they had great selections at reasonable prices and I could order two without having to do my Oliver impression. Even the coffee was good because …

    …. they actually want you to buy it. Instead of grudgingly provide it.

    Shortly before that I flew AA first class NYC to Phoenix on an early morning flight it was so bad it still annoys me.

  11. Agreed. I live in Dallas and have chosen Southwest (with fewer frequencies) for future trips since it at least offers a guaranteed middle seat

  12. If an airline expects a customer to pay a premium price for first class, then the airline has to provide service that aligns to that price. I’m not a fan of airplane meals but it make no sense to pay first class fares on a 4 + hour flight with no meal. Save the money and book economy plus.

  13. Yawn.

    So much not an issue.

    Schedule. Price. Legroom. Elite Program.

    You can’t social distance on an airplane. And an airplane is relative COVID-safe anyway.

    The airport on the other hand…

    As usual: Lucky gets it. Gary does not.

  14. American is still serving a fruit and cheese tray and later a snack basket service on these flights. Delta just served a snack basket in F on comparable flights. Why doesn’t Gary mention this?
    Example- In his other identical article on this, he mentions delta’s better seat on the Washington DCA-LAX route as something that will gobble American in this market, now that AA is downgrading their First Class meal. Certainly it seems that Gary failed to do his research. Delta use to fly the route with a plane with their lie flat delta one product. Now, it flies a 737-800 that has similar seats in First to what AA offers. And only serves a snack basket. Whereas AA serves the fruit/ cheese tray and a snack basket. I’m going from lax to dca next month, and delta wanted $650 one way the day I’m traveling, AA wanted $489. I’ll take AA and Gary do your research

  15. This says it all: “…American Airlines is loading itself up with $40 billion in debt, receiving government-subsidized loans and grants, the future of the airline and whether it’s making itself uncompetitive…matters to investors and taxpayers.”

    AA’s boardroom only cares about lining their own pockets. If that wasn’t clear before the pandemic, it sure is now. When AA goes belly up, these clowns will all get their multi-million $ golden parachutes for running a once-great airline into the ground. As for all the loyal AA customers, they get to figure what to do with their totally worthless status and miles.

  16. Gary, I do agree with your post 100%. All these things do matter. It is rather convenient to go early in the morning to the airport, zoom through TSA and get at the boarding to the gate knowing that I will be getting a breakfast on the plane. Sorry, in many of those cases I would skip a breakfast at home and will not take carefully curated snacks with me. It looks like AA is cutting left and right. It looks like the ExecPlat desk in Cary, NC will be gone soon: https://www.wral.com/coronavirus/american-airlines-to-lay-off-nearly-750-workers-at-rdu-in-cary/19190121/
    and we will end up with a “Bonvoy- style” EXP line.
    I also disagree with Lucky who posted a ridiculous piece about how the service is non-essential for someone who does non-essential travel to Turkey.

  17. @ Jason – On Delta you’ll have no one next to you, even in F. Would be worth the $161 to me these days.

  18. @Frank – the thing is though that Doug Parker is compensated all in stock, and has about 2.4 million shares of the company. So I have to believe he isn’t ill-intentioned, he just doesn’t know any better.

  19. Maybe this is just a trial balloon to gauge the reception of passengers? I think this is really crummy of them. Charge a few dollars more if you must and provide at least something. I recall in 1998 when a coach seat in the back came with a steak dinner on Delta. More recently, the first class meals closely resemble that coach meal from 20 years ago. Now the further downgrade is to nothing at all.

  20. I believe Lucky excels in trip reports, while Mr. Leff excels in matters related to airline industry and market analysis.

    On the specific subject, I agree that if one is paying for the highest class of service, a hot meal is not an unreasonable expectation. Those just looking for extra space can purchase an extra coach seat. Or just decline the meal.

  21. I agree with you Gary. Just flew SEA-DFW-CZM in AA first 10 days ago. This flight really sunk in travel is more about getting from Point A to Point B than anything else. First leg we got 2 drinks. 2nd leg flight attendant said you get one drink and that was it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fine with that but why pay extra to fly up front without the amenities? I got a bigger seat, but with upgrades 1st was full both legs while lots of room to spread out in economy.

    I’d rather have the extra room in economy for social distancing at this point and pay less.

  22. To be fair Lucky also excels in Clickbait posts designed to drive “engagement” in the comments so he can prove to his customers (the banks) that he has a large amount of product (readers) he can deliver to them.
    He also excels in placing 16 credit card referral links in a 8 paragraph Cc review.
    That’s why Gary and the guys over at Live and Let’s Fly will always be a better resource for travel as the websites aren’t their main business.
    Lucky is thrashing about in this new normal and is desperate for engagement and this revenue

  23. Dude you scam miles from your favorite airline. Are you a disgruntled AA employee wanna be? Grow Up.

  24. The cut back on meals they’re doing is nothing compared to the cut backs on employees. You do realize how many employees working for American Airlines are losing their jobs and how many more will!

  25. @CG-yes, many employees are going to lose their jobs due to the downturn in the economy, however, it goes back to what I have said many, many times to AA leadership; you’re not giving me a reason TO fly AA but keep giving me reasons NOT to. This move is just another reason not to fly AA. The ball is in AA’s court to change that. Maybe someday there will be leadership in place who understands this.

  26. Would never fly American to Europe. Air France is my choice. But since I haven’t gotten on a plane during Covid, are they serving meals?

  27. The PANDEMIC is still going on !!! Stop acting like everything is back to normal !!!

  28. Couldn’t agree with you more with all the points you have made! AA has to differentiAAte itself if it wants to attract and keep customers’ confidence, be it from business or leisure travelers.

  29. Would never fly American to Europe. Air France is my choice. But I’ve not boarded a plane during Covid. Is Air France serving meals?

  30. I’m Lifetime Platinum on AA. “Lifetime” means “the lifetime of the program”, so I could be kicked out if they change the program. I’ve actually been expecting that to happen since the merger with USAir. Anyone else in the same spot?

    Sometimes I think that the bean counters who currently run the airlines are a sad reflection of those fellows who used to be in charge. The Juan Trippes and Howard Hugheses of the world had jet fuel in their veins and they loved their product. Now we have people like Doug Parker, who could be selling widgets if he wasn’t selling airplane seats.

    I’ll not be flying much in the next year. I just don’t feel any urgency or appeal to get on an airplane. I’m hoping the feeling passes…

  31. I agree with you Gary. The product matters much more now that business travelers are not traveling. With people loyal to an airline, they will just take it (as I have on many occasions) as they have status with the airline and will continue to support them. Now that business travelers have largely dried up, airlines need to actually be competitive as the most loyal customers are no longer there. The average person is likely not to be all that loyal to one airline so they will choose based on schedule, price, and product.

  32. Gary is right. I just flew AA from JFK-LAX in Flagship First. Handed a Flagship Business menu by the FA assuring me it wasn’t a mistake. No champagne, only Prosecco. First world problems, no doubt, but for a price differential of $500 between business and first, AA needs to do better.

  33. Don’t know about meals, but had to fly American to the East Coast last October. I am disabled, and 80 years old, so I needed a wheelchair. Also was flying first class. I had one stop to change planes. They left me on the plane at the first stop and at my destination. Was asked by a flight attendant at the first stop, why I didn’t just walk off the plane??? The cleaners were ready to get the plane ready for their return flight, but as I was still there, they were finally able to get someone for me. At my destination, the same story!!!! When I was waiting to board at the originating airport, the gate agent kept telling me I wasn’t getting on the flight as I was booked to another airport. After I insisted that they put me on the flight I was booked on or else she had to wheel me down the ramp. Unfortunately I have no choice but to fly American, as no other airline can get me where I am going at this time. Wish I could fly Delta as I was treated like this a human being when I flew with them.

  34. The corona virus will be viewed as the biggest fraud in history in the coming years. Check the actual facts! Economies destroyed! SWINE FLU KILLED MANY MORE PEOPLE AND PEOPLE BARELY REMEMBER IT.. Left wing, Marxist propaganda. Wake up people.

  35. My wife does not like to fly. For a long time she would not fly at all after a couple bad experiences (panic attacks, etc.). She is not alone.

    We have found one solution is to fly first class. It is expensive with cash or points, but it provides a level of service (drinks, hot towels, hot nuts, meal service) that all help to distract and make the flying experience tolerable.

    She has come to prefer AA, as we live near a Southwest hub, and have limited other options. We have done many trips over the past five years (1-3/year) with them in first.

    Changing this meal policy will force us to consider other options. Thanks AA.


  36. Since Southwest is blocking middle seats you may as well fly them! First class in AA. Will not be wort it at all!

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