Like it or not, buy-on-board (BOB) menu items have replaced complimentary meals on most domestic, short-haul flights. Is it only a matter of time before the BOB revolution spreads to transatlantic flights as well?
One wonders if US Airways is taking its first, tentative steps in that direction, after introducing DineFresh, a premium meal option in economy class “that allows customers to treat themselves when flying international to Europe, the Middle East and South America”. The carrier says the new premium entrees, which must be purchased at least 24 hours prior to flight, enhances the airline’s current complimentary meal offerings.
But could this type of programme serve as a gateway to a more robust BOB offering on transatlantic and other long-haul flights? Free food foodie Tomás Romero explores the future of the complimentary meal in coach.
Like so many things, my love affair with free airplane food blossomed in my formative teen years, when my brother and I discovered the joys of complimentary gummy bears on a Lufthansa flight from San Francisco to Munich. We were “unaccompanied minors,” flying alone for the first time and we ate like economy-class kings the entire flight. Schnitzel, bratwurst, we even had Christmas goose on our return flight. The food was epic, life-altering, and best of all, it was totally, one-hundred-percent free (well, it was part-of-the-ticket “free”).
So, as you can imagine, I’ve been more than a little conflicted about the recent surge in BOB offerings. On the one hand, more choices on a menu are never bad, but when the pay options start edging out the free ones, I get nervous.
Major carriers have scrapped their free economy class meals before, and niche carriers like Icelandair haven’t served free food in coach in years. (On the plus side, Icelandair did premiere Björk’s latest album on its inflight entertainment system last year). So, this got me wondering, has the age of option-rich, BOB greatness officially doomed the free economy class meal on long-haul flights? Is BYO (bring-your-own) destined to become the new normal for budget-minded travellers?
At present, it seems the answer is a resounding “no”.
Seeing as United Airlines was the first (and so far, only) major US carrier to drop the free economy meal from its transatlantic flights in 2008, we started there. “In 2008, we offered high-quality food options for purchase in economy class during transatlantic flights,” remembers United Airlines spokesperson Joe Micucci. But when customers responded with what United’s then-chief customer officer Graham Atkinson politely termed as “very direct and candid feedback,” Micucci said the decision to change back and completely discontinue for-sale products on those flights was a no-brainer.
Virgin Atlantic has also resisted the BOB menu trend. “We are completely committed to the complimentary meal offering in all cabins,” says Virgin Atlantic spokesperson Joanne Foster. “We stand out on the basis of our award-winning product and service … and [we have] no plans to change to any kind of pay options in the future.” After checking out their menu options online, I can see why. Virgin’s complimentary menu choices are staggering. They even serve free popcorn and ice cream during movies!
American Airlines takes things a step further. “At American, we are committed to not only maintaining the complimentary programme in the main cabin, but, actually, expanding it and making it more robust,” says Brady Byrnes, product design manager for onboard products marketing & design. Citing the addition of complimentary beer and wine offerings on certain long-haul flights as a recent example, Byrnes also said to keep an eye out for espresso machines and walk-up, self-serve bars in business class on American’s new 777-300 aircraft come December.
They may not have self-serve bars (yet!), but Delta Air Lines has “no plans to discontinue complimentary meal offerings in economy class,” according to Delta Airlines spokesperson Leslie Parker Scott. “We believe they are valued by our customers and enhance the inflight experience,” she adds.
In fact, Parker Scott highlights another surprising trend among the airlines we spoke with: a refreshing fluidity on the menu front. Delta’s inflight menus are considered living, breathing documents that are totally open to change. For example, Parker Scott notes that Delta’s popular EATS Menu actually changes seasonally to include fun summer items, like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
Technically, Delta’s EATS menu is BOB, so, you’d have to pay for that Ben & Jerry’s, but that’s beside the point. With Delta and other carriers showing such dedication to not only retaining, but also, improving their menu items, it gives me hope for the future. Maybe things aren’t as bleak as I feared. Maybe free food in the cheap seats is not only here to stay, but, is, as Foster notes, a vital, even thriving tool in the carrier’s arsenal for retaining customer loyalty and repeat business.
Only time will tell for sure, but, for now, my inner unaccompanied minor is comforted by something Byrnes mentioned when we spoke: “A transatlantic flight is a great experience for our customers, and for many of them it could be the one and only trip that they fly for that year,” said Byrnes. “We recognise [our complimentary offerings] as part of that whole mystique of air travel, and so we definitely do try to make meaningful investments that will resonate with our customers.”
Nicely put. Now, pass the gummy bears.