If you are what you eat, are airlines what they serve? I was pondering this question on a recent hop to Shanghai as an Air China flight attendant handed me a familiar tinfoil-wrapped item. Service on CA is not unlike its signature meat-filled shaobing – warm and satisfying, but nothing fancy. While CA and other Chinese majors still have the luxury to be mediocre in the heavily protected domestic market, their counterparts in more open aviation markets are fighting cutthroat fare wars. “Legacy airlines” face a distinct choice in economy class service: raise the bar to stand out or stoop to new lows to cut costs. Which choice is manifest in the in-flight meal.
Certain renowned carriers are still willing to spend to fulfill passengers’ gastronomical need – even those stuck in the back of the plane. Larger portions, fresher ingredients, better preparation, more beverage options and just a touch of indulgence (say, a cup of Haagen-Dazs ice cream on Singapore Airlines or Dragonair) have gone a long way to solidify their reputations.
In contrast, US domestic fliers have long kissed free economy class meal goodbye, even those on six-hour transcontinental runs. Almost all the major US airlines (with the exception of Continental) now charge coach passengers between two and nine bucks for a meal. On March 1, US Airways made headlines for restoring free soda, water and juice service in economy class. For those of you tired of being asked “chicken or fish?” on domestic Chinese flights, consider yourself spoiled.
With bargain-hunters in developed aviation markets voting with their feet, legacy airlines are calculating that customers have indicated their preference for low fares over a free meal, which is a costly service for the companies. Southwest Airlines, the world’s pioneering low-cost carrier (LCC), offers only peanuts onboard, yet still spends more than USD 17 million a year on food and drinks. Industry analysts estimate that every time the catering truck touches the plane, the airline’s expenses soar: longer turnaround times at gates, extra weight, even special coffeemakers at USD 10,000 apiece. So why not save millions by eliminating something your customers don’t seem to value that much? (Although some foodie take their in-flight meals seriously enough to dedicate an entire website – www.airlinemeals.net – to the subject.)
The bottom line is, when airlines trade free meals for cheaper tickets, you are better off financially and gastronomically. Instead of mourning the disappearance of the in-flight meal, think where the ax may fall next. The CEO of Ryanair, Europe’s largest LCC, recently entertained publicly the idea of coin-operated lavatories. With the prospect of having to spend GBP 1 (RMB 10) each time you pee, you might be grateful there are no complimentary drinks onboard. Steven Jiang
This article was originally published on page 92 of the April 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.