Hello again: Delta’s free food in economy class on long domestic flights is a welcome change to constant fees

I recently ate my first free meal in years on a domestic flight in coach class. On Delta Air Lines. And it was pretty good.

Most U.S. airlines cut complimentary meals on domestic flights in the main cabin more than a decade ago. Delta did so in 2001 to cut costs. (Airlines still offer free meals and drinks to all passengers on long-haul international flights.)

Since then, however, in-flight food has been making a bit of a comeback. First came the paid meals, but now some airlines, like Delta, are once again offering free meals in economy class.

Delta’s decision is not brand new, but this was my first chance to sample it on a cross-country flight from Boston to San Francisco. In early 2017, Delta re-introduced free meals in the main cabin on some of its longest domestic flights. The service now is offered on more than a dozen routes, including:

  • New York (JFK) to/from Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle and Portland, Ore.
  • Washington D.C. (DCA) to/from Los Angeles
  • Seattle to/from Boston; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Orlando, Fla.; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
  • Boston to/from San Francisco and Los Angeles
  • Atlanta to/from Honolulu
  • New York (JFK) to/from Honolulu
  • Minneapolis to/from Honolulu

Like other airlines, Delta is focused on serving healthier food and drinks. Options on its free main cabin meal menu vary depending on the time of a flight. Recent options included a Turkey and Swiss Bagel or Protein Pack in the morning; a beef pastrami sandwich or veggie wrap for lunch; a Greek Mezze Plate or Sesame Noodle Salad for dinner on overnight flights. Fruit and cheese plates are offered at all times.

Delta's complimentary menu cover
Delta’s main cabin passengers get their own menu of complimentary food and drink options. This is the menu cover. (Sheryl Jean)

On my recent flight, I ate the Sesame Noodle Salad. The dish included four types of vegetables, the noodles weren’t overcooked, the sauce wasn’t overly sweet or salty, and the portion size was just about right for me. (See featured photo at top.) All in all, I was happy with the meal.

I also received free snack (a small Kind bar) among options including Cheez-It crackers and cookies. Delta offers free snacks to main cabin passengers on flights over 250 miles. In addition, passengers travelling in Delta Comfort Plus domestic routes (on flights over 900 miles) will receive free snacks.

Delta main cabin complimentary menu
These were Delta’s complimentary food and drink options on my recent cross-country flight. (Sheryl Jean)

Delta also offers 17 different special meals, such as diabetic, gluten-free and vegetarian to all passengers on flights that offer complimentary meals. Passengers can pre-order these meals.

Other U.S. airlines also have upgraded their food menus and other services to make flying easier and more comfortable, though most charge for food.

As of December, American Airlines began offering a new inflight healthy menu to main cabin passengers on most U.S. flights longer than three hours — in collaboration with Zoës Kitchen. I wrote a blog post about it.

Will such moves be enough to attract new customers? Who knows. But they’re sure to please existing customers who’ve been nickeled-and-dimed by airlines for everything from headphones to extra leg room.

Report vs. reality: Is airline service improving?

A new report showing airline improvements across the board comes on the tail of two recent examples of just how bumpy air travel can be.

The 2016 Airline Quality Rating report debuted today by professors at Wichita State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University found that airlines are flying on time more often, mishandling fewer bags,  getting fewer complaints and denying boarding to fewer passengers.

But over the last few days, Delta Air Lines canceled more than 3,000 flights after a storm at its home base of Atlanta. Chicago-based United Airlines created an uproar on social media after a video showed security agents drag a man off a plane on Sunday after he refused to give up his seat on the overbooked United flight. (See video below.)

 

Fellow passenger Audra D. Bridges posted the video on Facebook while the plane was boarding at Chicago O’Hare International Airport headed to Louisville, Ky. She also wrote on the post: “United airlines overbooked the flight. They randomly selected people to kick off so their standby crew could have a seat. This man is a doctor and has to be at the hospital in the morning. He did not want to get off. We are all shaky and so disgusted.”

Here was United CEO’s response on Facebook:

 

United offered compensation to four volunteers who would leave the overbooked flight so four crew members could get to Louisville for work the next day, according to Bridges’ report in the Louisville, Ky., Courier Journal. With no takers, United randomly selected four passengers; three left the plane but the fourth, the man who has dragged away, refused to leave, according to the news report.

United ranked No. 8 among 12 airlines in the Airline Quality Rating report. Alaska Airlines, which recently acquired Virgin America, as the No. 1 U.S. carrier.

Here are some other findings from the report, which is based on data from the U.S. Department of Transportation:

On-time performance: The share of on-time arrivals rose to 81.4 percent in 2016 from 79.9 percent in 2015. The DOT considers a flight on time if it arrives within 15 minutes of its scheduled time.

Customer complaints: The rate of complaints filed with the government declined 20 percent.

Baggage: The rate of lost, stolen or delayed bags fell 17 percent.

Bumped passengers: The rate of passengers bumped from oversold flights fell 18 percent.

Remember airline food? It’s back for free on some longer Delta flights

Starting today, Californians will be among the first travelers to taste Delta Air Lines’ complimentary meals in the economy class on 12 longer U.S. routes.

Meals are first being rolled out to economy passengers on flights between New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and the Los Angeles or San Francisco airports. Then on April 24, Delta will offer free food on 10 other routes, including Seattle, New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.

Delta’s food leans toward fresh and healthy. For breakfast, passengers can choose between a honey maple breakfast sandwich, a breakfast medley or a fruit and cheese plate. For lunch, there’s a mesquite-smoked turkey combo, a whole grain veggie wrap (main photo above courtesy of Delta Air Lines) or a fruit and cheese plate. Passengers also will get snacks.

delta-coach-cheese-plate-2017
Starting March 1, a complimentary fruit and cheese plate will be offered to economy-class passengers on some longer Delta flights. (Courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

Most airlines, including Atlanta-based Delta, stopped serving free meals in economy class by 2010. Delta says its change is part of a multi-million dollar investment in its in-flight customer experience, including upgraded snacks, better blankets, new food-for-purchase options and free in-flight entertainment.

When the airline tested the meal service on some flights late last year, its customer satisfaction scores spiked.

There are other reasons, too. Now that the airline industry is quite healthy again, carriers are re-investing some of their profits in products and services designed to retain existing customers and attract new customers in a hyper-competitive market. Free food is a way for Delta to distinguish itself from the competition .

Remaining questions include whether Delta’s free food tastes good and whether that matters to most travelers.