With planes once again full to bursting, US airlines have mostly resumed in-flight food and drink offerings that they had abandoned at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Still, a few cuts remain in place, either as cost-cutting measures or due to supply chain issues.
On June 1, United became the latest U.S. carrier to implement significant reintroductions to inflight catering operations when it brought back first-class hot meals on core flights over 800 miles, replacing the packaged sandwich that served during the pandemic. On the same day, the carrier also resumed cold meals on trays for United First customers on regional flights. And on international flights, June 1 brought the resumption of three-course meal service in the Polaris business class cabin on long-haul United flights.
Other full-service airlines had beaten United to the punch. Delta resumed domestic first-class hot meal service in March after American did the same on domestic flights over three and a half hours in February. Alaska was well ahead of both with its reintroduction of domestic hot meals for first-class customers last July. JetBlue revamped meal service in its full-service Mint cabins last November, when it resumed taking verbal orders in-flight.
Multi-course meals like this, which featured beef tenderloin, twice-cooked potatoes, baby spinach and roasted butternut squash, have been carried over to American’s long-haul flagship business class. Photo credit: TW photo by Robert Silk
American and Delta have also resumed three-course service in their respective Flagship and Delta One international business classes.
The story of the domestic economy cabins is a bit more complex, although all major US airlines, including Southwest, have resumed standard free snack service as well as liquor sales.
American, however, has not brought back its broader menu of food for sale in main staterooms.
“Right now it’s Pringles and almonds with booze,” said spokeswoman Leah Rubertino, who added that no timeline has been set for a broader recovery.
Delta has brought back most of its main items for sale in the cabin, including a variety of snack boxes on flights of 900 miles or more that contain items such as beef jerky and Ghirardelli chocolates.
The carrier will announce other main cabin offerings soon, a spokeswoman said.
United offers a variety of snacks and snack boxes for purchase on flights over 500 miles, and on flights over 1,500 miles the carrier offers more substantial items, including chia seed pudding during breakfast hours and a BBQ burger for afternoon and evening flights.
Alaska said it was the first US carrier to reintroduce fresh food and snacks for purchase in the main cabin and, unlike some competitors, it offers meals on flights as short as two hours.
“Unique compared to other airlines, our F&B offerings have developed a cult following, namely our signature fruit and cheese platter,” the carrier said.
JetBlue has resumed all in-flight services, spokesman Philip Stewart said. This includes a selection of beers, wines and spirits for purchase as well as snack boxes and fresh food choices including a cheese plate, Mediterranean salad and turkey and provolone sandwich. The carrier also offers free self-service snacks.
Delta resumed domestic first-class hot meals in March, offering dishes such as French bread pizza, mushroom ravioli and chicken cacciatore. Photo credit: Courtesy of Delta Air Lines
Covid-era changes remain
Yet a few other differences persist when it comes to airline service offerings today compared to before the pandemic.
For example, Delta has not resumed differentiated meal service in its premium Economy international cabin. Instead, Premium Select customers receive the same meal as economy flyers.
Gary Leff, who tracks service offerings from US carriers for his View From the Wing blog, said other airline changes are more subtle. One plus: extended US meal service in domestic first class to include flights departing until 9:00 p.m. Cut-off was 8:00 p.m.
On the other hand, the carrier served hot meals to first-class customers on flights of 900 miles or more. Now, cold meals are the rule for flights under 1,500 miles.
Leff is among industry watchers who believe some of the cuts are a mistake.
“There is a bit of bewilderment as airlines start talking about their restored service,” he said. “There appear to be at least some attempts to retain cost reductions in the pandemic era.”
But some cuts, he said, are at least partly the result of supply chain issues as well as staff shortages at the catering providers the airlines use.
Rubertino, however, said that at American, any ongoing supply chain-related adjustments are only minor.
“For example, the size of the carrots might be different, or the lettuce on the salad might be different,” she said. “We are still working to make this change if necessary.”
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