Bad airline food has long been a cliché. But as airports increasingly roll out higher-end eateries, airlines, too, are upping their game, at least for premium passengers.

Could free meals be ready for a comeback in economy class and in premium economy on North American flights, or will it continue to be buy-as-you-fly? One of the USA’s biggest carriers is considering it for at least some cross-country flights.

U.S. carriers are revamping their domestic flight menus, enlisting renowned chefs, and harvesting fresher ingredients to present fliers with better options for a healthy meal.

Delta doubled the number of first class menu items it offers on short-haul domestic flights. Alaska Airlines’ economy passengers can buy a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich as well as other bites that reflect the mult-ethnic flavor of its home home of Seattle.

United launched menu items such as duck confit ravioli along with its new premium service between Newark and San Francisco and Los Angeles.  And American is incorporating seasonal veggies to cater to health conscious customers traveling on transcontinental flights.

In economy class, Delta Air Lines has started complimentary meal service on its transcontinental service between its hub at New York JFK and the California cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco. It began Nov. 1 2016 as part of a trial that will run through Dec. 15 and could become permanent if it’s well-received by fliers.

Morning passengers can choose between a honey maple breakfast sandwich or a “breakfast medley.” Lunch options include a mesquite-smoked turkey combo with chips or a whole-grain veggie wrap.

When asked if Delta is would consider bringing back complimentary meals on multiple cross-country flights or just on its “Transcon service” routes between New York and California, Delta spokeswoman said “Right now, we are focusing on those (Transcon) markets for the testing, but we will plan to use the results and feedback from customers to determine next steps.”

Some airlines are going in the opposite direction, dropping complimentary meals in an effort to meet the growing demand for low-cost airfare.

Others are taking advantage of the increased liquidity provided by the current increase in travel demand and drop in fuel cost to reinvest in the customer experience. In either case, efforts are intended to cater to passenger preference.

Canadian LCC WestJet has recently announced that hot meals will not be complimentary on its nine-hour transatlantic route from Vancouver to London in a bid to bring the LCC ethos to the long-haul market.

Those opposed to cutting compulsory complimentary food often cite health concerns as reason why the LLC model cannot be simply transferred to the long-haul market where the duration of flights often encompasses one or two mealtimes. However, WestJet isn’t imposing a flight-wide fast: Passengers who do not plan ahead by purchasing a meal in an airport restaurant or lounge have the option of purchasing an à la carte option on board.

What Do Passengers Want?

Varying responses to this question have guided airlines in the prioritization of certain services and amenities over others. As some carriers strive to hit rock bottom prices, others are banking on the low fuel prices of the moment to improve their culinary offerings.

The rising popularity of low-cost carriers is an indication that passengers are happy to welcome more affordable air travel. Many LCCs in Europe, including Wizz Air, Monarch, Ryanair and more rely on the passengers who would prefer a trim off price above all else – including an in-flight meal that hasn’t been explicitly requested.

If LCCs are cutting catering services to maintain low prices, legacy carriers are doing so to tap into this burgeoning market. A British Airways spokesperson recently announced the carrier is reviewing its in-flight catering “to ensure we’re delivering what [passengers] want. Everything we do is with our customers in mind, and we will make changes that reflect their feedback.” Doing so would challenge BA’s standing as a “plusher” airline, but would allow the legacy carrier to compete with local budget carriers, such as EasyJet and Ryanair.

More Free Food in Economy Coming ?

In addition to the airlines that are maintaining their complimentary meals, there are some that have recently announced increases to their offerings. United Airlines, for example, has announced that passengers on flights between the US and Europe can expect a mid-flight snack in addition to the pre-arrival snack and hot meal that passengers already receive. Meanwhile, American Airlines has restored complimentary snacks, after canceling them in 2003.

According to USA Today, newfound financial stability in the American aviation sector means that the “big three” – United, American and Delta – are in a position to reinvest in the passenger experience. The 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent economic recession resulted in billions of dollars in loss over the last decade, but the current increase in travel demand, drop in fuel cost and a series of major airline mergers have strengthened the US aviation sector, thereby ending a period of near austerity.

Airlines may cite passengers’ preferences in defense of their stance on free in-flight food, but the truth is the majority of passengers appear indifferent to the matter. According to a survey conducted by Inmarsat and GfK, fifty-four percent of passengers say broadband connectivity is more important than in-flight meals, which is only a priority for 19 percent of respondents.

Recent announcements from British Airways and American Airlines regarding in-flight Wi-Fi suggest that passengers are indeed being heard. If the findings are correct, in-flight catering may prove to have little bearing on customer satisfaction – or, at the very least, less than cheap airfare and fast Wi-Fi would.

Times have changed, many airlines are not certain however that if you build a better menu, customers will necessarily come. They don’t ink the consumer is going to start flocking back to an airline because of the quality of the food. The fact that they now have it, a lot of people are thinking ‘it’s about (darn) time.’

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