On March 1, Continental Airlines stopped serving free pretzels and cookies to domestic passengers flying coach. The new policy is designed to better align its in-flight snack and beverage service with its merger-partner United Airlines.
“We’ve removed the beverage snacks — pretzels and Biscoff — in an effort to reduce costs and align ourselves with the rest of the industry,” said Continental Airlines spokesperson Andrew Ferraro. “Our partner, United Airlines, has the same policy.”
The move could save the airline an estimated $2.5 million a year. Both airlines will continue to offer complimentary beverage service.
This is clearly a reflection of standardizing the onboard experience between United and Continental,” said Henry Harteveldt, an airline and travel analyst for Forrester Research. “Sadly, instead of elevating the United onboard experience, Continental has chosen the lowest common denominator.”
Harteveldt suspects the move may also be tied to — or blamed on — rising fuel costs.
“With fuel costs surging, once again we see an airline take its business problems out on its passengers. I’m sure Continental hopes that by removing the complimentary snacks, more people will buy the snack items the airline sells onboard.”
In addition to Continental and United Airlines, American and US Airways are among the other major domestic U.S. carriers that have already dropped complimentary in-flight snack service.
Not all airlines are rushing to follow this trend. Yet.
Alaska Airlines continues to serve a variety of complimentary snacks on its morning and afternoon flights.
Air Tran Airways continues to serve complimentary Biscoff cookies and pretzels in coach. “At this time we do not have any plans to change that,” said airline spokesperson Judy Graham-Weaver.
Delta Air Lines currently offers complimentary peanuts, pretzels or Biscoff cookies to passengers on flights of 250 miles or more. “There are no changes planned currently,” said airline spokesperson Morgan Durrant.
Continuing a tradition begun by Midwest Airlines, Frontier Airlines still bakes and serves complimentary chocolate-chip cookies to all passengers after 10 a.m.
Southwest Airlines continues to serve free snacks. According to its latest corporate fact sheet, in 2010 the airline served 19 million complimentary bags of pretzels, 87.6 million bags of peanuts, 18.4 million Select-A-Snacks and 29 million other snacks. “We’re always looking at enhancements and new offerings,” said spokesperson Brad Hawkins.
JetBlue Airways also continues to offer coach passengers unlimited, complimentary snacks. During 2010, the airline handed out more than 4 million bags of complimentary chips, said JetBlue spokesperson Allison Steinberg.
“As airlines like Continental continue to make these decisions (to drop snacks), Delta and Southwest, which both still offer complimentary snacks, become that much more of the passenger’s friend,” said Harteveldt.
Raymond Kollau of airlinetrends.com doesn’t believe legacy carriers should allow low-cost carriers to claim complimentary in-flight snacks as a signature service. “One solution for legacy carriers is to team up with brands.” He mentioned the successful free in-flight Wi-Fi campaigns that have been paid for by Google and other companies and said it can also work for food.
Complimentar Biscoff cookies on Delta Air Lines, courtesy Susan Chana Elliott
My column this week on msnbc.com – Free meals on planes fly into the sunset – is all about the demise of “free” meals for economy class passengers on domestic airlines. It’s also about the efforts airlines are making to convince travelers to buy their meals on board.
On a Continental Airlines flight this summer from Newark to Seattle, one of my seatmates made a wisecrack about the “mystery meat” in the complimentary in-flight meal. “Say what you want,” snapped the flight attendant, “Continental is the last airline serving free meals and soon they’re going bye-bye. I bet you’ll complain then too.”
She was right about the complimentary meals.
Today Continental Airlines, which recently merged with United, begins selling buy-on-board meals on all domestic flights less than six hours. Hawaiian Airlines continues to offer its passengers complimentary meals, plus a premium option for purchase (bestsellers: sushi and cheeseburgers), but Continental is the last major domestic airline to jettison free meals.
Hawaiian Airlines sushi
“What Continental served to coach passengers wasn’t exactly a four course meal. It was more like a roll with a piece of meat,” said aviation expert Mike Boyd of Boyd Group International. “I won’t miss it. But now that the free meals are gone, I’m sure some people will complain.”
Continental’s chief marketing officer, Jim Compton, terms the move away from free-food a reflection of “today’s market and customer preference.” But cutting out complimentary meals will save Continental an estimated $35 million a year. Not that much dough when an airline’s success is measured in billions of dollars, but still significant in an era when every penny counts.
Do meals matter?
Beyond marking a mile-high-meal milestone, will anyone really care that Continental has cut its complimentary meal service? “I doubt it,” says Mary Tabacchi, an associate professor of food and beverage management at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. “Economy class passengers voted with their feet a long time ago. Schedules and cost now come first and food is way down in the rankings. Meals on Continental were just a bonus.”
For now, most airlines continue to offer complimentary coffee, tea, water and soft drinks. Some continue to serve snacks.
Free snacks on JetBlue
Continental’s Mary Clark says “Our complimentary snacks are still offered with beverage cart service on most flights; cookies in the morning and pretzels for the rest of the day/evening.” Southwest Airlines passengers can snack on peanuts or pretzels on all flights.
Complimentary snacks on AirTran and United include small bags of pretzels or Biscoff cookies. Delta Airlines adds peanuts into that mix.
Midwest Airlines became famous for its complimentary, warm chocolate chip cookies and, now that the airline has merged with Frontier, the cookie tradition continues.
Alaska Airlines hands outs a complimentary snack mix and, on some longer flights, Cougar Mountain cookies. Alaska passengers going to Hawaii are also treated to a small serving of Mauna Loa Macadamia nuts and a complimentary Mai Tai or passion orange guava juice.
JetBlue offers passengers unlimited servings of chips, cashews, animal crackers and other items. And each month regional Horizon Air offers passengers a different Northwest wine and microbrew at no extra charge.
The list of fresh meals offered on US Airways changes six times a year. The airline’s Valerie Wunder says the airline uses Twitter votes and in-flight testing to see which buy-on-board meals and snacks are passenger favorites. “That’s how we decided to drop instant oatmeal and instant soup but keep the popular Pringles and Blue Diamond almonds.”
During October, to celebrate its 3rd year of flying to Hawaii, Alaska Airlines is selling Hawaiian-themed meals, such as the Hawaiian Breakfast Skillet, on all flights 2.5 hours or longer. Alaska’s Marianne Lindsay says the airline’s food and beverage team works year-round with a design chef from LSG Sky Chef, one of three major in-flight catering companies, to create meals that feature many regional food items. “We also post the chef’s email address in our inflight magazine,” she said.
Spirit Airlines lists its food for purchase in its on-board magazine, not online as most other airlines do. The airline sells soft drinks ($3), animal crackers, instant soup and other snack items ($2-$4) and offers mix-and-match value meals for $3 to $14 dollars. For example, a single beer or wine is $6, but if you buy three drinks at once, the package price is $14.
On Virgin America, which rolled out its new menu on October 1st, passengers use their seat-back touchscreens to order (and pay for) a meal or a snack anytime during a flight. Suggested food and drink pairings are offered at a discount before each order is completed. “We do pretty well because the menu system allows people to browse,” say Virgin America spokesperson Abby Lunardini. “We know on average people are willing to spend $21 on ancillary items such as movies, premium TV, Wi-Fi, food and cocktails. And we’re hitting that target.”
Competition on the ground for meals in the air
As they did with baggage fees and fees for extra legroom, aisle seats and other unbundled airline amenities, passengers are getting used to the idea of buying their own in-flight meals.
But that doesn’t mean they’re buying those meals on airplanes.
In Zagat’s 2009 airlines survey, 19% of travelers said they’d willingly pay for snacks on domestic flights. Only 6 percent of those surveyed said if a free meal isn’t offered they typically purchase buy-on-board meals.
Are travelers filling up on Pringles or going hungry instead? 7% said they were, but 56% of those Zagat surveyed said they bought their in-flight meals at the airport.
All those brought-on-board meals are pushing those who prepare buy-on-board menus to work harder. “We are absolutely competing with airport food,” said Rob Gallagher, Virgin America’s catering manager, “Airports are now doing so many wonderful things with food.”
Hans Miller, CEO of Airside Mobile, agrees. “The average passenger spends more than $8 on food per trip at the major airports. Airlines and airports are just beginning to see themselves in competition for those food sales as well as other service-oriented revenue.”
“That competition means passengers are getting better in-flight snack and meal choices,” said Bill Gillen, an executive chef for LSG Sky Chefs, which creates menu items for American, Alaska, US Airways and Virgin America. “In the past it was just putting things together. Now there’s a lot more thought going into offering things that are interesting, innovative and a good value. Like the shaved roast turkey sandwich with corn bread stuffing some airlines will be offering during the holidays. People love that!”
What else will travelers love? United Airlines is hoping passengers will love ordering, and paying for, their in-flight meals before they even get on the plane.
You can now pre-order brunch on some United Airlines transcontinental flights
Last week the airline introduced two $24.99 brunch options, with chocolate and sparkling wine, for customers flying transcontinental p.s. (premium service) flights between New York’s Kennedy airport and Los Angeles or San Francisco.
The twist: meals must be ordered on-line, 72 hours before a flight.
Will $25 premium pre-purchased meals be the next big thing in flying? Henry Harteveldt, an airline and travel analyst for Forrester Research doesn’t think so. “I believe a premium meal offering would have consumer appeal. But I am concerned that, even with sparkling wine, this is too expensive.”
We’ve all become accustomed to checking in for our flights on-line and printing out our boarding passes at home or at an airport kiosk on our way to the security checkpoint.
Now the TSA is working with five airlines and 70 airports to test paperless boarding passes.
Here’s how it works: When a traveler checks in on-line the airline emails a boarding pass in the form of a 2-D barcode that can be downloaded to a smartphone. The barcode on the phone can be scanned at the security checkpoint and by the airline gate agent; just like a paper pass.
It’s sound great, doesn’t it?
. But as I wrote in my most recent msnbc.com column – Going paperless: Tech-savvy air travelers on board – it’s probably not a good idea to disconnect your printer just yet. Electronic passes aren’t accepted everywhere. And they’re not fool-proof. “One of the first times I used one, my phone browser refreshed and I lost the boarding pass 30 seconds before boarding,” recalls Walter Hopgood, a frequent business traveler from Damascus, Oregon.
Path to paperless
Some airlines in Europe, Canada and Asia have been using paperless boarding passes since early 2007, but the United States has been behind the curve on adopting the new technology.
“We were slower to get Internet access on cell phones, slower to get affordable data plans on cell phones and slower than Europeans to start using cell phones for accessing data,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst for Forrester Research. But it’s also because the TSA has been very cautious, says Catherine Mayer, vice president of airport services at SITA, an information technology company serving the aviation industry. “The agency had additional security requirements it wanted airlines to meet before it would allow paperless boarding to be introduced here.”
Continental, the first airline to work up software to meet TSA’s authentication standards, kicked off the TSA’s pilot program for paperless boarding in December, 2007. Now the test program includes five U.S. airlines (Alaska, American, Continental, Delta and United), 71 domestic airports and Frankfurt Airport in Germany.
“Airlines are able to streamline the airport experience for passengers,” said Justin Taubman, the program manager for TSA’s mobile boarding pass program. “And the TSA is able to enhance the security of the boarding passes.”
Good to go?
While electronic boarding passes do save paper and time while heightening the TSA’s ability to detect fraudulent boarding passes, the pilot program is not glitch-free.
Some passengers encounter scanners with spent batteries or security-checkpoint staffers untrained or uninterested in the mobile pass pilot program. When Justin Meyer of Kansas City showed up at 5 a.m. at a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., security checkpoint armed with his electronic boarding pass, a TSA employee pressed him for paper. “I didn’t have it,” Meyer recalled, “so I had to wait about 10 minutes while they found the scanner and plugged it in.”
Other travelers have stored a paperless pass on a smartphone that has lost its charge. Or they’ve sailed through the TSA checkpoint paper-free, only to discover that an airline is using a gate without a scanner. Or they’ve discovered some airlines only deliver one paperless pass per smartphone — and that won’t work if you’re traveling with a family of four.
“Like any new technology or service, there needs to be a transition period when everyone is learning the way to proceed,” said Steve Lott of International Air Transport Association, an industry trade group. And so for now, notes Shashank Nigam of the airline consulting firm, Simpliflying, “Paperless boarding may very well remain an early adopter thing until all airlines and airports fall in line.”
That may not be too far off. TSA’s Justin Taubman says the agency is currently working with vendors to develop equipment for a new boarding pass scanning system. “Once the new Credential Authenticating Boarding Pass Scanning System, or CAT/BPSS, is in place,” he said, “the pilot project will become an official TSA program.”
So many people are canceling trips to Mexico because of worries over swine flu that United Airlines and Continental Airlines are significantly cutting out flights to that country. No doubt other airlines will also cut flights, so if you’ve postponed your Mexico trip, check back with the airline to see if you need to change plans again.
And – just so this isn’t a post full of bad news – the Miami International Airport officially opened the new South Terminal Art Gallery with a new program called Hand Made, which will feature handcrafts from around the world.
The first exhibition is Siesta, a collection of hand-woven products featuring ceremonial hammocks and bags by the Wayuu people from the region of La Guajira in northern Colombia.