US Airlines’ Hopeless Attempts to Invest More in Wine

Bloomberg suggests that strong financial performance of US airlines is leading to more investment in product, specifically wine. Personally I have not yet noticed this on my premium cabin flights with American and Delta.

Wine Choice for Airline Premium Cabins is Tricky

Wine certainly can taste very different in the air than on the ground.

Most people don’t know very much about wine (I suspect that the average premium cabin customer is like my seatmate who brought her own wine in a coffee cup onboard), though they think of it as a luxury good. Delta’s wine program recognizes this specifically avoiding bottles that are priced too inexpensively at retail (lest people think they’re low quality, regardless of taste) and that have too unsophisticated a label.

I wasn’t familiar with United’s wine decision-making, apparently:

Consulting master sommelier Doug Frost arranges wines for a blind taste test by a beverage committee, which scores the wines to help decide which will be served.

No indication whether these taste tests happen in the air or on the ground though it’s almost certainly the latter.

Most Wine on US Carriers is Quite Bad

What’s missing from the discussion is how much carriers are spending on wine. My sense is that Delta is willing to spend more on international business class wine than either United or American.

When I told the New York Times that flyers should be concerned about the inflight experience at American as a result of the merger with US Airways, then-US Airways Vice President of Communications John McDonald sent me a couple of bottles of their business class wine to taste. I gave them away at Frequent Traveler University later that month.

Even the most knowledgeable sommeliers are constrained by:

  • The airline’s budget

  • Sourcing and distribution capability (they have to buy in significant volume and locate bottles around the system)

During the oneworld MegaDO three years ago American had their wine consultant Ken Chase set up tastings at the Flight Path Museum at the edge of the tarmac at LAX. At the time it seemed he was appearing everywhere, although interestingly I haven’t seen him mentioned much of late. He makes an appearance in the article,

“If you’re in our first class or business class, I just assume you’re a joie de vivre-type person, and you travel a lot, and you love food and wine, and I want to give you the best adventure,” says Ken Chase, American Airlines’ wine consultant.

Though he was certainly knowledgeable about wine, I found the bottles being poured mostly undrinkable. And that was on the ground.

The Halo Effect of Wine

Emirates is said to have spent $500 million acquiring wine for its flights. Now, that’s a multi-year purchase. And it probably involves lots of rounding. Clearly the goal was to get to the $500 million number in order to promote it.

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As I wrote in “How the US Airlines Can Compete And Win Against the Big Gulf Airlines (Instead of Lobbying for Protectionist Policies)” there’s a halo effect that they’re going for with big investments in their first class especially. By making it so over-the-top that it’s discussed with awe in social media they get a real brand awareness and a perception of a quality product that even permeates their coach experience — often exceedingly reality by a wide margin.

    While Emirates is spending half a billion dollars on wine, much of their fleet consists of an angled business class product.

Singapore Airlines is the only carrier that serves both Dom Perignon and Krug onboard. There’s this moment when a Singapore flight attendant asks you if you’d care for champagne, you say yes, and they respond, “would you prefer Dom Perignon or Krug?” with a certain confident smirk. While tastes vary, and many will prefer Krug regardless, I believe the only proper answer to this question is, “What year is the Dom?”

Singapore Airlines spokesman James Bradbury-Boyd acknowledges the effect,

We take advantage of the sizzle of premium wine brands to reinforce the overall sense of luxury,” says Singapore spokesman James Bradbury-Boyd, calling sophisticated wine “one of the pillars of the brand.”

Everything Old is New Again

I started flying in premium cabins regularly in the late 1990s. Meals then were something truly different than what we experience today.

I’ll never forget that lunch on my very first business class domestic flight on United (on a 3-cabin aircraft) consisted of an almond-dusted prawn appetizer followed by steak and then dessert, served in courses.

In the spring of 2001 it was incredibly controversial in frequent flyer circles that United began serving a ‘gourmet cheeseburger’ in domestic first class. Frankly it was a darned good burger (not like the burgers we’ve seen onboard US carrers since). The sense at the time, though, was that a burger was simply not first class.

Wine was never United’s strong suit in my opinion, at the time they were serving Louis Martini Cabernet which was then about a $12 bottle. Completely inoffensive, though uninspired.

Still, there was a ceremony around wine and back before 2001’s recession we saw airlines competing to portray themselves as offering the best wine program and promoting that flight attendants were being sent to wine school. I’m not sure how that was supposed to make the wine taste better, though perhaps it would help the flight attendant explain to you why you like the wine.

Unquestionably when times are good and profits high, airlines will compete with each other for high yield business, and one of the ways they do that is signalling that they are offering a high quality product. An easy way to do that is through wine.

Wine Isn’t Where I’d Invest as a US Airline

The challenge though is that the rhetoric often doesn’t match the reality. It strikes me that wine can be an especially costly place to invest. And claiming to invest there while only making the tiniest of improvements at the margin can lead to a mismatch of expectations and disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong — there are many very high quality wines at a low price point! I’d probably focus on Spanish Tempranillo and Cava myself if I were buying for a US airline. But it’s also very difficult to find inexpensive wines that are good and will appeal to the vast majority of tastes and that can also be a signal of quality as much as actual quality to consumers unfamiliar with wine.

Thus I think it’s ultimately an unlikely area for successful investment by US carriers. I’d focus on other elements of the experience, like improving meals themselves and ultimately on codifying, incentivizing, and enforcing strong service standards.

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. @Gary — I disagree with you. It is precisely because the vast majority of the flying public is ignorant about wine (and therefore easily impressed by name, cost, or general (as opposed to nuanced) “deliciousness” that this is an easy target. If I were a US airline I would make it a point to have at least one recognizable wine on board (preferably the Champagne as it is the most direct symbol of luxury in people’s minds) and make the rest just “delicious” wines that come from fancy places, but are priced reasonably. Forget trying to source that special, award-winning wine from a family-owned vineyard that only makes 10,000 bottles a year, but that nobody has ever heard of.

    Keep in mind that US airlines have tremendous sway over producers due to the sheer volume of their business (I’m talking about economies of scale here) and I’m convinced they can best any other airline (even Gulf and Asian) in the sort of discounts that they receive.

    This really is an area of their business where US airlines can make a huge marketing impact for a minimal additional investment. I think, that is.

  2. Barf to you Mark, when has a single one of your comments added anything to a discussion here? You do nothing but shit and run.

  3. @ Gary — Yes, plenty of great wines are available for less than $10 per bottle, but the crap they serve on UA and AA is horrible. I actually enjoyed a nice bottle of Pinot on a a recent DL JFK-SFO business call flight. I don’t recall the name of the win , and so I did not look up the price, but I enjoyed the wine.

  4. Yes the wine matters. I will book paid first on Delta transcons over AA or United because they serve much better wine.

    The seat is the same on all three. Schedules and fares the same.

  5. I agree with Mark. It’s pretty DB-like when your self-chosen tag line is “Thought leader in travel” and you name-drop publications you’ve contributed to.

  6. I think that the volume/price matrix may be the biggest issue. Even so, I think that the base-level Gallo Cabernet (roughly $12/magnum at retail) is perfectly drinkable, but they would still never serve it.

    Without the volume constraint, more would be possible. The house Chianti at the Dallas Centurion Club, for example (Marchesi de Frescobaldi “Castiglioni” Chianti DOCG — no year that I can recall), is actually affirmatively decent, and I’m sure it didn’t cost that much. I have to admit, though, that I had to taste-test my way through the rest of their wines before finally finding this one.

    Also, if Ken Chase really blind tested his wines, he wouldn’t serve any of them at all anywhere, let alone on board the planes of his biggest client.

  7. I think the airlines should partner with Trader Joe’s – they have a bunch of sub-$10 bottles that I think are really good.

  8. Let’s make it clear that Gary mostly uses frequent flyer miles from US Airlines to drink the KRUG and Dom Perignon on the International carriers. So long as he doesn’t complain about American Airlines removing the lobster tails from the JFK-LAX transcon salads, his argument is a bit of a double standard.

    Blame Obama. It is he, his wife, and his Facebook high-school recess administration that is screwing flyers and hotel hoppers with ObamaCare and 0% interest rates.

  9. Undrinkable? Seriously?? I’ve had some wines that I found better than others, with no correlation to price I might add, but the only undrinkable ones were those that had gone bad.

    Reminds me of a conversation I had with an expert in a wine production region of France. When asked how to tell a good wine from a bad wine, she replied that a good wine is one that you like.

  10. I agree with A.S. in that they should just target “deliciousness” at a low cost for them. But it seems with wine there is rarely broad consensus on “deliciousness”. Throw in whatever affect altitude has on the taste, and you’ve got a lot of unpredictability. Let’s all remember the huge blind taste test from years ago that showed people thought the $3/bottle Oak Leaf wine the best – purchased from Wal-Mart. Wine snobs tone it down a notch.

  11. I must disagree with your choices…if buying for an American airline, buy American! If I want French wines, I’ll fly Air France (or BA since the Brits don’t have much to offer of their own). Argentinian or Chilean, I’ll fly LAN/TAM. Just look at what QF and NZ do to highlight their home grown vintages and varietals. They’re proud of what’s grown and blended in their respective countries, and highlight it in the air. Or closer to home, AS features some fine bottles from wineries in the northwest.

    Most domestic F cabins have US wines, though there are some interesting NY wines that could be added to their west cost offerings. Surely there are affordable quality bottles that can be added to overseas F and J cabins. (AA used to offer tastings in F, but as it turned out not many of its customers in that cabin knew much about wine, nor wanted to learn more through these tastings. I did a couple of these tastings while sitting in J, convincing the FAs I knew enough about wines to make the effort worthwhile.) I figure maybe 10% of those flying in premium cabins know much about wine…could name more than one varietal, or know the difference between a Shiraz and a Syrah.

    At one of the SMDs we did a tasting of UA wines with their consultant. Several very nice ones, but never came across them in the air on that airline, nor for that matter, the very nice main course selections we were offered over lunch!

    Of course, we know that the big problem with wines is they just don’t taste the same in the air at 36K feet as they do on the ground. That’s the real challenge and I’ve only heard of BA doing an actual inflight tasting of wines to be offered.

  12. Greg’s spot on. When booking, survey aftrer survey tells us that people look for safety, legroom, schedule/on-time, entertainment, and quality of food and drinks — generally in that order (and the frequent flyer program is way down).

    Safety and seats are all the same nowadays. JetBlue understood this hierarchy and launched with entertainment — which worked magic for them — and is using food and drinks/wines with Mint — which is also working magic for them. I never hear passengers brag about how safe Mint is, or how their lie flat seat compares to the other lie flat seats: it’s always “I had such a great meal on my flight to Los Angeles” and “the food was amazing–I will be flying them again”.

    @Gary — poor showing about giving bottles of AA wine away without tasting. I would have picked up another few bottles at the same retail price point, given away a blind tasting for 10 people, and blogged the results. That way you would have learned something useful (having fun in the process). Your bias and premunition against AA wine is absolutely unjournalisitc.

  13. @Gary – funny enough, I just few Delta One from JFK-LAX this weekend and was really impressed by the red wine – both by the taste, the brand (Au Bon Climat, out of Santa Barbara, which is highly respected) and the retail value ($30/bottle). And this was in domestic (premium route, but still). To me, it made an impression that Delta was making great strides to step over AA and UA and establish itself as more of a “premium” carrier as far as food and beverage go. (And I think it’s working.)

  14. I really like that you point out the halo effect of having a well-publicized wine program. Good one there.

  15. It’s foolish to not consider the taste variance of wines when altitude changes occur when airlines make their wine portfolio selections.

    If you recall, there was a very interesting article published last year about why tomato juice tastes better in the air than on the ground. The same certainly applies to wines, and food for that matter.

    The low humidity of the cabin and the change in atmospheric pressure reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood, which in turn decreases your sense of both taste and smell.

    The airlines would be well served to take this into consideration when making their food and beverage selections.

  16. Ed, just curious. What’s with inserting Obama into every single thread? I can’t stand him either….. And hate to be reminded of him!

  17. Being a wine lover and then consuming wine inflight are 2 things that don’t mix. The altitude screws up your taste buds and the wine doesn’t breathe the same as at sea level. Then you add the lack of wine knowledge and many, many people do not like wine….so why should the US carriers spend the money? Create a simple wine list with a half dozen choices. Make sure the wines taste decent at 10,000 feet, and throw in a few recognizable names. The standards, a Pinot Grigio, a Merlot, a sparkling, a Chardonnay, a Cabernet and a wild card. That’s it. So Gary, I agree, spend more money on food.

    Someone mentioned using US produced wines, great idea! Probably easier to obtain, keep stocked, and more recognizable for the mostly American passengers.

    The idea that all foreign carriers do better wine….having flown Air France J enough to say that Air France’s food is great. Air France wine should be much better. I had better wines on Alitalia and Swiss. Cathay and Singapore do wine well. Can’t comment on ME carriers, as I probably will never fly them.

  18. A constant mistake in this blog IMO is the trivial relationship made between luxury/price and quality/taste/class. Both can be purchased at Costco. Uniqueness would be much more interesting but the clientele the 1st class products are targeted to is more interested in status and completely ignorant of taste (or the fact that a good bottle on the ground becomes bad on the air). Here is to getting very drunk on average wine!

  19. As a long time experienced wine collector and writer of a wine blog, I think that the wine choices that I have seen on UA and AA in J cabins are pretty awful.

    First of all, if you are flying J, there should be enough margin to provide wines that cost more than $10 per bottle. There are oceans of very good wines from high volume AOCs across the planet costing less than $30 at retail. Which is far less at wholesale.

    In the Y cabin, they could serve really decent wine that is near $10 retail. Many Italian off varietals like Cannonau can make for excellent drinking at really competitive prices. Same thing with many Crianzas from Spain or red wine from Portugal.

    The added benefit of those wines apart from being decent is that they usually have a lot less alcohol than their American counterparts. That means less headaches, dehydration, and discomfort post-flight.

    If AA and UA really cared, there are many master sommeliers who could easily help them put together a decent wine program that is scales properly and on budget. But Ken Chase isn’t the right person for the job IMO.

  20. “What year is the Dom?” Love it! That said, you should have tried the samples, unless you had already tried them.

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