Why Airlines Should Eliminate Free Meals on ALL Flights

People love to complain about flying. Whether it’s airport security, ticket pricing, delays, cancellations, customer service, or the myriad fees associated with flying, there’s always something to bitch about. It’s perfectly human to do so – long waits and an overall feeling of lack of control/freedom/privacy lend themselves easily to “can you believe this?” conversations with even the most perfect strangers. And with the proliferation of online message boards, consumer reviews, and sites such as this, the echo chamber has grown exponentially more echoed. It’s enough to make one wish for the old days, when – as many a hack comic would tell you – the worst part of flying was the food.

Airlines still provide in-flight meals on most international flights, but on domestic flights, the “free meal” has gone the way of TWA. In their stead, many airlines offer an array of for-purchase meal options. Below is a snack section of Delta’s domestic in-flight menu:

I’ve flown Delta a few times the past couple of years, and have opted for the snack boxes, which usually have some variation of crackers, cheese, a cured meat, nuts, and dried fruit, plus some random dessert item. For $5.50-$6.00, if you get the munchies on an airplane, it’s a pretty good deal.

When airlines first started slashing meal budgets, then charging for food, it felt like just another nickel-and-dime move by an industry that suddenly had never met a fee it didn’t like. But when you think about it, free in-flight meals were probably the worst inclusive perk of the many we consumers took for granted. All of those stand-up comedians were onto something; airline food usually is terrible. It’s often a hodgepodge of warmed-over pasta, dried chicken or “beef”; a salad containing exactly five pieces of iceberg lettuce, three carrot shrapnel, and one cherry tomato (plus an ounce of dressing); a roll wrapped in cellophane accompanied by a pat of near-frozen butter; and a cookie or brownie that sadly was probably the healthiest thing on your tray.

(Exception: Virgin Atlantic once fed me an exquisite dinner of baked salmon, whipped potatoes and carrots, and white wine, which was better than I’ve had at many restaurants.)

Then there’s the whole charade of enjoying a communal meal at 30,000 feet. You know the drill: We’ve reached cruising altitude, it’s 10 p.m., time to eat! After that, lights out. It’s almost like prison.

I realize that airlines had the best intentions, and probably a lot of customers have the expectation that they should be fed for free as a part of the price of their airline ticket and the time given up to fly. However, I don’t think airlines are cutting and charging purely out of desperation. Surely they’ve conducted market research that tells them that above all, customers want to pay as little for a ticket as possible. They want to feel like they’ve gotten a good deal. And what sounds like a better deal, saying you flew from Chicago to LA for $220, or saying that you flew for $370 including meals, a hot wet towelette, and checked bags? Americans love to complain about the nickel-and-diming, but what they love even more is to find a way around it – which is what the airlines are now offering. They’re saying, “you can fly for cheaper than ever if you’re willing to bring your own sandwich and fit everything into a carry-on.”

Not only that, but it only shows that we never really needed free airline food. Most flyers probably felt compelled to take the meal, pick at it, and hand the tray back to the steward/ess before dozing off. It’s free, right? But it never truly satisfies and often fills us with regret. What the hell did I just eat? And for the love of God, WHY?! On the other hand, deciding whether you want to volunteer $5.50 for products you’ve seen sold in grocery stores, and that don’t necessarily require refrigeration and microwaving – well now, that should make you consider whether you’re truly hungry or not. (Just as a baggage fee makes you rethink what you really need to pack.)

I’d be perfectly fine with eliminating free meals on international flights in lieu of these menu options, especially if it meant lower ticket prices. I realize there are some people whose definition of “service” stipulates that perks and luxuries be included without hassle. But isn’t that what first class is for?

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