American Introducing Free Meals in Coach — Because They Have To

American sent out a press release today, “FREE MAIN CABIN MEALS COMING ON SELECT COAST-TO-COAST FLIGHTS” of course ‘select’ is the operative word. American Airlines will offer free meals in economy only on the New York JFK – San Francisco and New York JFK – Los Angeles routes starting May 1.

Here’s what the meals will consist of:

Depending on the time of day, customers will be offered a continental breakfast or a boxed meal with a sandwich wrap, kettle chips and dessert. The menu also includes a vegetarian option and a fruit and cheese plate.

American Airlines Airbus A321T Economy

These are premium routes (United used to offer only extra legroom seating in economy) and more importantly Delta began testing free food in back on these routes back in December.

So it’s a competitive response. In January I wrote that United and American blindly copy Delta for all the wrong things. They assume if Delta does it, it must be smart, like opening a fast food restaurant across the street from McDonald’s knowing that McDonald’s has a tremendous research and analytics capability behind where to locate stores.

Moreover American doesn’t want to lose customers especially on these flights. However Delta didn’t just roll out meals in economy on New York to San Francisco and Los Angeles, they added meals to a total of 12 routes including others where they compete head-to-head with American:

  • Washington National – Los Angeles (where Delta will offer fully flat seats up front)
  • New York JFK – San Diego
  • New York JFK – Seattle

The New York JFK flights, in particular, are ones where you’d expect American to add this service next since they’re already provisioning economy meals at that airport.

Meals alone won’t attract customers, investment in product has to be a part of an integrated strategy at developing a more premium brand. So far though American seems to be fighting a rear-guard action to avoid losing customers.

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, 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 also remember when all the domestic U.S. airlines, one by one, all ceased offering meals on flights “because they had to”! Funny how times change.

  2. “They assume if Delta does it, it must be smart, like opening a fast food restaurant across the street from McDonald’s knowing that McDonald’s has a tremendous research and analytics capability behind where to locate stores.”

    IIRC, this was Burger King’s exact business model since they discovered part of the analysis for opening a new McD’s was whether it could stay in business if a BK opened next door.

  3. Why do airlines continue to serve “Kettle” chips in coach? Surely they are aware of the negative connotations of that word among some frequent flyers?

  4. Delta should totally make up something random, and let United and AA copy it. Its a shame that the innovation in this industry (in the USA) is all about copying Delta’s moves.

  5. If you look at the numbers, American is already losing customer share and they’re losing more high-paying ones that low-paying ones (they’re losing more in revenues than in RPMs).

    What a dim future for the airline–in any business, once you lose customers it’s extremely expensive to get them back (or replace them)!

  6. @MS

    The number of people worldwide who would actively use that word in that context is probably less than 1000. Maybe just a few hundred FlyerTalkers. Meanwhile, to people in the real world, kettle chips are tasty food that are slightly more upmarket than regular chips.

  7. The other consideration here is that the cost to American is especially low for JFK-LAX/SFO, because the A321T has *only* 72 economy seats (12 rows). The plane is very sparsely configured by modern standards, the flight attendants’ service runs are very fast, and they have lots of galley space.

    It basically is a drop in the bucket to AA. DL’s offering is much more substantial because they have much larger economy sections on their transcon routes (all of them, including JFK-LAX/SFO, some frequencies being operated by fairly large widebodies).

  8. All airlines are always matching the service levels of their competitors. It’s very rare for a “full service” airline not to serve meals on a route where its competitors do.
    I tend to think this was a good idea on Delta’s part. Flights that are more than 5 hours should probably have some free food. Eating is not really “optional” in that time frame.

    The next coach food upgrade is probably to Hawaii, as that’s also unreasonable (especially if you’re travelling on a connecting flight). The only thing holding that back in that unit revenue is probably lower on those flights than transcons.

  9. I was delighted on my recent 5-hour delayed AA A321 (“sharklets”) flight from LAX to JFK to receive a delicious free beer. After all, what is my time worth? Especially with a 2:30am arrival. Please pass the [free] kettle chips.

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