Why is Airline Breakfast So Bad?

Delta is supposed to be the best of the major U.S. airlines. It has marginally better operational performance. While there are bad apples the median flight attendant is friendlier.

You can get decent food on Alaska Airlines — yes even at breakfast — yet this is what I was served on Delta on a recent flight over 1500 miles:

This breakfast on American strikes me as equally unappealing.

In fairness I’ve had good cinnamon rolls on United. But that’s all that’s really good.

Airplane meals aren’t usually very good to begin with, at least as eaten on U.S. carriers, but why is breakfast the worst meal of the day?

Usually there’s a choice that goes something like this “eggs of some kind plus mystery breakfast meat and fruit, or oatmeal and fruit.” There isn’t creativity, taste, or quality.

On my recent Delta flight I cut the egg dish in half and put it on the bagel, making a bagel egg sandwich. The bagel was chewy and this was on a flight departing from New York. It really shouldn’t be that hard to cater a decent bagel in New York and offer smoked salmon, tomato, onion, cream cheese and capers. A lox platter option for New York departures seems easy. American has done a version of this with low quality bagels on regional jets lacking ovens.

US airlines are never going to be a match for their foreign counterparts. On an Etihad flight from Abu Dhabi to New York JFK I ordered my eggs scrambled with smoked salmon. That wasn’t an option on the menu, but they had smoked salmon bagels as a choice, so I asked if they might use the smoke salmon in my eggs.

A simple way to think about better breakfast is to think brunch. That opens up a whole new world of possibility beyond reheated scrambled eggs or omelettes, granola or oatmeal.

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. Let’s be honest, the typical meal in a restaurant is very poor compared to a meal in most of Europe. Processed food. A sandwich at any major train station in Europe is much better than anything you get from subway, jimmy john, etc. so it isn’t surprising that we are served crappy food on an airline.

  2. The biggest problem is eggs don’t reheat well. The best airlines cook eggs to order like Cathay Pacific

  3. Gary, I think you had an answer in your post already: the breakfast is bad because DL does it and then AA and UA just copy what DL does. I do not eat sweet for breakfast so UA cinnamon roll is unappealing.
    Some time ago AA had southern biscuits always served as breakfast bread – I believe that those disappear even before freshly backed cookies.
    A few years ago I flew Y on Bangkok Airways from BKK to Chiang Rai. The flight is blocked at about 1 h 20 min and direct distance is 437 miles. It was a morning flight and I was surprised to see an option to choose breakfast in coach including seafood. I ended up with a very good omelette made with salmon lox, some fruits, and bread – all served with a smile. The cost of one-way ticket was $50-60.

  4. Breakfast tends not to be a very creative meal in America. And it isn’t a meal that does very well when served on an airplane.

    I think I have the answer to your question.

  5. Austrian has an on board chef in a Business. Food was surprisingly good especially at breakfast when accompanied by fresh brewed coffee. Literally surprised the hell out of me.

  6. I had fantastic breakfast on a 7 am AA flight from MIA to PHX in first class.
    I love the sandwiches in the US, bei JJ, Subway. Cannot compare to the European Sandwiches.
    Mind: I live in Switzerland.

  7. The lack of variety in breakfast foods is boring and annoying. There must be something about yogurt (high nutritional value and low cost probably) that makes airlines include it in Western breakfasts for every class of service on just about all flights where breakfast is a free option.

    While eggs are often disappointing on a plane, American Airlines has found a way to serve outstanding biscuits. They are nearly always hot with flaky crusts and soft interiors – almost as good as homemade if any remember homemade biscuits. Now if only the butter was not served rock hard. You can soften it under a hot entree, but timing it so the butter doesn’t melt too much is crucial.

  8. @ Gary — Well, then it’s more important than ever that you write about it! I was running for the exit! Ha!

  9. @ Gary — Ok, I’ve now done my homework. BankDirect deal seems dead in its current form, with new form offering slightly worse deal at $50k, but way better deal for small balances or balances well over $50k.
    However, looking at other options, it seems that Citi Accelerate at similar other accounts offering 2.05% may be better. It all depends on your tax and miles situation. BankDirect checking appears dead, so will need to use something else for paying bills.

  10. I want a good club sandwich with a bag of chips on a lunch flight. Maybe with some grapes. I don’t want a weird salad or steamed and stored hamburger. If I do get a salad could it not have enough dressing or then in the salad dressing thimble?

    Is that so hard?

  11. Not to suggest Delta’s bagel was great, but, uh, bagels are supposed to be “chewy.” Especially in New York.

  12. The airport clubs fall in line. Admirals Club is attempting breakfast tacos. The eggs are chunks… likely a boil-in-bag product. Over-cooked, then breaking the mass into chunks. Sure, we can assume their cooking equipment is limited. But just because they’re in bags does not mean they have to be cooked to a solid mass. The quality is then made even worse by the overheated skillet used for serving.

  13. As the fly-boys takeover Amtrak’s management, it should be of no surprise that Amtrak recently eliminated cooked to order breakfast as it persists to degrade dining cars east of the Mississippi River. So, the same pathetic airline approach to breakfast in the U.S. is now foisted upon rail passengers, as if most people eat breakfast bars or breakfast sandwiches.

    BTW-for those longing to optimize the traditional dining car experience, salvation can be found in Canada on VIA Rail Canada’s trancon, “The Canadian,” between Toronto-Vancouver.

  14. I usually try to eat breakfast before getting on the plane. The eggs are awful on all the USA airlines.

  15. Frankly food on airlines and restaurants in America is awful compared to Europe . This is why quality rerstaurants managed by European chefs in cities like NY and SF , do so well. People are willing to pay for quality

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