air food

This is Part II in  my series of thoughts–however Quixotic–on how to improve the grossly dysfunctional air travel system that we currently have in the United States. Part I, imploring airlines to stop hurting their customers on purpose, is here. Today I want to talk about food.

Airline food has been the butt of jokes for decades. It’s rubbery, it’s tasteless, it’s unappetizing, and they don’t give you much of it. Well, I should say they didn’t give you much of it, because in the United States at least, airlines don’t give you food at all anymore. Southwest Airlines gives out tiny packages of pretzels or peanuts, but if you want a real meal, you have to–you guessed it–pay extra. Oddly, the elimination of meals from U.S. airlines has been met with much less general criticism than the shrinking of seats or (especially) the institution of baggage fees, which are ipso facto outrageous regardless of the amount charged. As a society we’ve largely given up on airlines feeding us, even for long flights. The airline industry got away with it, possibly because airline food was pretty terrible to begin with.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. This summer I flew Lufthansa, the German flag carrier, which served everyone on board two free meals that were substantial and tasty. In the days before airline deregulation in the United States, airlines used to compete with each other on the quality of their food offerings. Imagine that–airlines not only offering food, but competing on its quality! These days are long vanished.

air food 1950s

In the 1950s, you could actually expect decent food in the air. This stewardess is just getting started with the appetizers.

Why shouldn’t we, as American air travelers, expect a somewhat decent meal to be included as part of the basic service for which we pay an airline? Why did we so passively accept that food should be taken away from us, or, earlier than that, that it should be of poor quality? If you’re going to spend eight hours or more in the air, locked in a small room with stale air and hundreds of strangers–and in a tiny uncomfortable chair to boot–why do we not demand that at least they feed us something, for God’s sake? When did starvation on airplanes become okay and acceptable?

I posit that a return to regular meal service on U.S. airlines would not only improve the character of the air travel experience immeasurably, but it would improve safety too–and probably profits, if that’s what the airlines are so worried about. (Of course they are). Although I don’t think a study like this has ever been done, I would be surprised if it was not the case that “air rage” incidents are considerably more rare on flights where food is served. It’s human nature and common sense that it’s harder to be angry at your 3-hour delay and the incompetence of gate agents when you’re handed a good, nutritious and decent meal. Furthermore, eating something diverts passengers from the time weighing heavily on them. Mealtimes on Lufthansa were considerably brighter, mood-wise, across the entire airplane. Why do U.S. airline executives dismiss these tangible benefits as not being worth the cost?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking that duck l’orange be served on a crystal platter as part of your $335 fare to Pittsburgh. But is a roast beef sandwich or a simple green salad really that much to ask? Maybe the first class cabin could feature gourmet fare designed by Mario Batalli, but total starvation shouldn’t be the lot of the poor saps, like me, flying in coach. And the better the food the more customer cachet you’ll build, yes? Since the utter disaster of deregulation in 1978–a topic I certainly will discuss in this series–airlines have competed almost exclusively on price. It seems to me, though, that a robust competition on meal quality might make a dent in that monolithic truth. But what do I know? I’m just a paying customer.

A Continental Airlines ad from the 1970s. Now choke on your tiny foil package of peanuts.

Why airlines don’t do this is exactly the same reason why they won’t honor their customers with basic human decency by providing them with suitable seats: “it will cost money.” As I said last time, this is the least persuasive excuse that an airline could possibly make, given the enormous profits their shareholders make and the obscene salaries and bonuses that their executives pocket on a regular basis. I remain completely unconvinced that it’s “too expensive” for an airline to offer basic meal service, for two very compelling reasons: (1) they were perfectly capable of doing it before, and (2) European airlines, like Lufthansa, do it with no problem. Again, as in the case of too-small seats, airline executives must change their thinking. They must begin to value customers and their basic dignity of personhood more than a couple of extra cents on an electronic stock ticker.

If you’re sensing a common theme in my suggestions regarding airlines, it’s not your imagination. Starving passengers and painful seats both stem from the same problem: the valuation of short-term profit over long-term customer sustainability. European airlines don’t have this problem, at least not to the same extent, because so many of them are heavily subsidized by governments. This raises the question: if purely for-profit airlines in the United States have felt “forced” to abandon basic levels of service in order to remain profitable (even if one buys their spurious claims that basic service is too expensive to provide), isn’t this an argument for why airlines in the United States should not be purely for profit?

More on that question, and others related, in future articles in this series.