Which US Airlines Spend the Most on Inflight Food?

Yesterday USA Today‘s Roadwarrior Voices noted per passenger meal spending by US airlines according to DOT filings.

Here are the numbers, but don’t read too much into them:

We’re not really comparing apples to apples here, each airline reports costs to the DOT but the methodology they use isn’t necessarily the same.

What’s more, a higher load factor at Delta for instance will mean more passengers to spread costs across. Delta also doesn’t have as many hubs catering meals as American so may have lower fixed costs unrelated to the food.

We can see United, Delta, and American spending more on food than Virgin America and JetBlue. That just tells us that Virgin America operates shorter flights that the nation’s 3 biggest airlines. JetBlue is only extensive serving meals to premium cabin customers on their limited set of “Mint” routes. Blue potato chips aren’t very expensive.

More interesting is the comparison over time:

In 2001, American and United spent an average of $8 per person, but airlines’ food expenditures have dropped more than 25% since then. The low point was 2007, when the average spend was $3.30 per flier.

As excited as I may get over improvements in American’s meal service in May and August of this year, compared to cutbacks in September 2014, it’s all a far cry from what used to be served.

I don’t think I’m really going into a “back in the day, sonny” rant to remember my first upgrade in March 2008 where I received an almond dusted shrimp appetizer followed by a steak course on United in business class between Los Angeles and Washington Dulles. Or that it was genuinely jarring to see a “gourmet cheeseburger” served in United First in mid-2001. The cutbacks in meal service began before 9/11, but what passed for ‘cut back’ meal service then would be nearly impossible to imagine served today.

Of course economy passengers used to receive meals on long flights. We used to make fun of the meals. Now we long for them. United even had celebrity chef meals in economy (Sheila Lukins) and that was even after they had a McDonalds marketing deal in the early 90s offering happy meal toys on Orlando flights.

Here are the choices that any passenger could select from (ordered in advance) in economy in 1998:

Sixteen special menus, including three vegetarian options, low-purine, Kosher, Muslim, Hindu, and Obento Japanese meals, are offered.

United’s sample diabetic dinner menu includes a dinner roll with margarine, fresh garden salad with diet dressing, pear halves, white wild rice salad with raw vegetables and marinated chicken breast with penne pasta and zucchini. A low-fat/low-cholesterol breakfast features a plain bagel with artificially-sweetened preserves and margarine, a fresh fruit appetizer and an egg-substitute omelet with pan-roasted vegetables and fire-roasted pepper sauce.

The Asian vegetarian main meal offers a plain rice cake with natural preserves, fresh garden salad with lemon rice wine vinaigrette dressing, peach halves, vegetarian steak appetizer and vegetarian pasta with curry sauce.

And for the record: US airlines were profitable at that time. We’ve simply reached a different competitive equilibrium. There’s a reason that no US airline is among the best airlines for food.

Etihad Salmon Biryani, Washington Dulles – Abu Dhabi First Class

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. You mean 1998 not 2008?

    UA’s current chef said that they get complaints when the burger isn’t in rotation, for better or worse.

  2. It would be interesting to see average meals costs for premium cabins. How much do Cathay Pacific/BA/Etihad spend for a meal in First? Would be interesting to see the relationship between a meal on a $1000 economy ticket vs a meal on a $10,000 first class ticket.

  3. Enjoy first class American Airlines food from Kona Hi. To LAX, why did I get a horrible seat? barley reclined, was a grey colored seat was in seat left front side.from LAXtoKona flight left at 5:45 pm

  4. Amazing that the huge amount of customer satisfaction and profitability JetBlue derives from not allowing people to go cranky hungry costs them only a buck a person. That’s some amazing ROI there!

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