American Airlines May Permanently Change Inflight Meals

Filed Under: American

We know that airlines have temporarily adjusted onboard service in light of coronavirus, but American Airlines has now hinted at some possible permanent changes to the way it approaches meals.

How American meal service may evolve

View from the Wing notes some interesting comments made by Jill Surdek, American’s SVP of Flight Service, during a Q&A session with employees. These comments are regarding the future of onboard meals, particularly in premium cabins.

Surdek said not to expect full service to return immediately, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.

She also hinted at some long-term changes, stating that there’s an opportunity to “re-think” meal service, and to “bring back something that still has a premium feel but is different and more modern.”

Here’s part of what she said:

“We’re not going to come back with full tray services immediately. There’s going to have to be some interim step. And I really think there’s an opportunity to re-think it. When you think about the footprint we have for meal service and how we served, it’s been very similar over the years. And is there a way to bring back something that still has a premium feel but is different and more modern, and is this an opportunity to reset in a way that we might have made more incremental changes before.”

I support an update to the way American serves meals

Odds are that when you hear about meal service evolving to be “more modern” and “different,” you assume that this is code for cost cutting. I’d more or less agree.

However, unlike some others, I’d actually generally welcome a radical change to the way that American Airlines serves meals in first class on domestic flights.

Airline meal budgets are notoriously low, and American’s focus has long been on creating meals that sound premium, rather than ones that are actually tasty and possible to execute well at a low cost.

For example, maybe it’s just me, but if I only had a few dollars to spend on a meal, I wouldn’t have lobster or wagyu meatloaf. But that seems to be what American does.

Lobster, American Airlines style

For example, for breakfast I’d love to see airlines serve a yogurt parfait (with actually decent ingredients) and and a cold brew, rather than an omelet that I’d never even think of eating on the ground, and American’s onboard hot coffee.

A typical American Airlines breakfast

That’s just one example, but I think similar examples exist for lunch and dinner. I’d rather have a well made sandwich than microwave lasagna. Heck, while I wouldn’t call American’s buy on board food in economy great, I would say that I’ve enjoyed the sandwiches there more than many first class meals.

American Airlines buy on board sandwich

American Airlines first class lunch

My point is that I’d love to see airlines try harder to serve food that:

  • Is actually within their budgets when using decent ingredients
  • Can be executed well given the limitations of aircraft

In an ideal world American would serve good, hot food, and improve upon its existing offering. For example, catering in JetBlue Mint is phenomenal, and the best within the US. While it can be done, the reality is that it’s highly unlikely we’ll see any positive changes at American when it comes to catering, since we didn’t see that even during the best of times.

JetBlue Mint meal

Personally I skip the food in American’s domestic first class a majority of the time, and long-term I’d love to see a serious evolution to how inflight dining is approached. Unfortunately I highly doubt any changes when it comes to catering will be well executed.

That won’t stop me from sharing what I’d like to see, though…

Bottom line

While we know airlines are adjusting inflight service for now, American Airlines’ SVP of Flight Service has made it clear that there may be long term changes to meal services, so that they are “different” and “more modern.”

Personally I’d love to see airlines approach meals differently on domestic flights, though I also have no doubt that any changes to service would likely be negative, given how American has historically approached onboard service.

What do you guys think — while any changes presumably won’t be positive, is there a way you’d like to see airline meals evolve in general?

  1. Used to prefer AA over UA with ability to see and select meal in advance.
    If flight over 3hr, and in first, they better have a decent meal, or great discounted price, or I’ll go elsewhere.

  2. i find it fascinating that after all the hate AA gets, both rightly and wrongly, they seem to be most taking advantage of the opportunity to do hard resets for the better rather than sticking to status quo.

    using the food example, the SVP has a point. since they aren’t serving any food right now, why not completely re-think how it’s done vs just wait for it to return. it’s very possible that this turns into a net-negative, however this is literally innovation. hate em or love em, AA is going to get through this pandemic because their executives are clearly enabled to think differently which is very much NOT common in corporate america.

  3. This situation presents a good opportunity for airlines to not only save money but improve food quality at the same time. I would rather have less food at a higher quality than what has been served in the past.

  4. @ Ben — The real issue is with the food budget. It’s hard to do anything decent for $5. on a long-haul flight, I would rather pay an extra $15 and get an excellent meal with the $20 budget.

  5. This is all just usual airline puffery to shield and permanently justify service cutbacks. I think given the global reality, that if airlines were simply honest about what they have to work with, people would be more forgiving. How American air carriers, as you write Ben, cannot even get catering right in good times…, e.g. all of them think sundaes in premium classes are somehow acceptable as dessert, than what this really means is “we’ll use American corporate doublespeak to persuade you that less is in fact more.” Their inflight service and catering thinkers aren’t the only ones in denial; so are their communications and marketing departments too.

  6. If they can do something like what Lufthansa or British Airways do on intra-Europe flights – a really nicely presented set of hot and cold food together on a tray – that’s great.

    But using COVID as an excuse to go to all-cold food or just snacks on flights that had hot meals is not going to fly with premium paying passengers.

    First, food you eat with fork and knife is more sanitary than finger food snacks. Second, premium fliers don’t always have time to eat before boarding, so a proper meal not just a snack is essential.

  7. “My point is that I’d love to see airlines try harder to serve food that:
    Is actually within their budgets when using decent ingredients”

    But, don’t you think it’s highly probable that, in fact, they would go cheap on the ingredients to (further) reduce the cost?

    e.g. They could spend $8 today for a hot casserole dish of glop like they do today, or they could (a) spend $8 on high quality cold sandwiches or (b) spend $5 on blah, soggy sandwiches. Seriously, which do you think they would do?

    Cynical? Qui? Moi?

  8. Modern = seeds & weeds. The heavy meals should have been eliminated years ago. Having a heavy meal followed by another two+ hours of sitting is no bueno.

  9. Yes, AA premium catering is disgusting! I do hope they will use this chance profoundly and serve food which are edible, good taste and healthy! If they can offer great Bus. seats, it is not a huge effort to serve decent premium meals on board! With that said, surely pax will come back and fly them, not because of status cards or buying cheap miles with bonuses

  10. This site has really become a shell of its former self. @Ben – you know that your readers are waiting for an update of your trip to Turkey. Yet you postpone without comment trying to keep us all logging in. Really it is a shame the way you have treated your readers.

  11. This post reminded me of Amtrak’s introduction two years ago of “contemporary and flexible” dining to replace traditional dining car service. Those of us who ride/follow Amtrak know how that turned out — it was a fiasco driven entirely to reduce costs. Most passengers considered the food inedible.
    Interesting to see AA seeming to follow a similar path.

  12. Actually, in my view the omelette was a better breakfast option on AA. Eggs are, perhaps, the cheapest protein and with proper sauce the whole dish reheats well.
    But an omelette with Nova Lox served in Y by Bangkok Airways during a morning flight from Bangkok to Chiang Rai was significantly better.

  13. I am guessing they are looking at the same route where Delta has done for their international economy meals – having the flight attendants plate the entire tray instead having the catering company to do so, which would shave off a few dollars. There’s an opportunity to offer a mix of small and big bites, similar to JetBlue’s meal service. The idea is to push out of the normal 3 course meal with glop as the main course, and have food people actually want to eat without coming across as cheap (I’m looking at you UA).

  14. There are 3 reasons I don’t fly US carriers in a premium class…

    1. The food
    2. The food
    3. The food

  15. I’m always amazed at why passengers in F and J cabins have such high expectations for inflight food and wine offerings. Even the best wines taste “off” at altitude. The entree is frozen and reheated. It’s never going to be great, just adequate for someone who is hungry or wants a buzz. I never board a domestic F flight hungry, although breakfast is usually a safe bet on AA. Keep the omelet!

    Those economy cabin purchased packaged sandwiches are terrible – mushy, wet cold bread with bad cold cuts, American cheese and mystery sauce. The dinner meals in F can be hit or miss and I agree that the slimy pasta dishes are bad. It would be nice if they collected feedback from elite passengers who fly F regularly and go from there. As bad as people complain about the food, I rarely see anyone in F refusing the meals and not eating them. I always feel a little conspicuous leaving my pasta entree untouched when the plate is picked up.

    These menus change frequently even before COVID. I can’t imagine what the “modern” menu will look like in F, hopefully not raw fish with quinoa and turmeric latte.

  16. Personally I think being able to pre-order meals is great. Thai for example offers a wide range of meals that you can chose between. Ok, they might not be super exciting, but their food is alright, which is more than I can say for some airlines. One of the worst meals I’ve ever had in a plane was in business in Singapore airlines. By letting people pre-order, there can also be charged for options, like what Lufthansa does/did. Not that I’m keen on paying extra for meals, but it gives people an option to order something fancier, if they want. The problem with Lufthansa, is that many of their “premium” charged for meals aren’t very premium.
    By letting people pre-order meals, there should be less waste as well, since people can order food they like, instead of being given some random food they don’t eat, like the nasty in-flight omelettes…

  17. @Alex_77W Bangkok Airways have surprisingly decent food. One of the best economy class meals I’ve ever had. Turkish airlines used to be really good as well, but I haven’t flown them for over 20 years so…

  18. @The Original Donna – Those of us who regularly fly in F and J class have high expectations because there are some carriers that actually meet our standards. None are US based unfortunately, but it’s still very much possible to serve a high quality meal given the desire and resources to do so.

    I’m dating myself here, but back in the early to mid 80s Minneapolis based Northwest Airlines and Republic Airlines we’re competing neck to neck for Twin Cities passengers. At the time, Northwest served fresh, not frozen, meals in First Class that were made in Northwest’s own flight kitchens. We’re talking about dishes like Lobster Thermidor, in domestic First.

    Not to be outdone, Republic served things like Trout Amandine, in domestic coach on a DC9. And on shorter flights they’d serve a very well made sub sandwich, or a hamburger with fruit, and dessert in a wicker basket with a split of wine. Alas it didn’t last forever because Northwest ultimately purchased Republic in 1986. But even after the merger NW first class catering was by and large excellent, especially on international flights.

    All it takes is the will to do it, and some competition to prime the pump of innovation.

  19. AA Experience July 31: Admittedly very Short Haul:

    LGA Admiral’s club: NADA, no water, no NOTHING, PLUS Forbidden (??!!!) to eat your OWN food /drink your own water, which you might have brought (Plenty of concessions open in the new LGA terminal B Post -security hall, which would be magnificent if it were not located 1/2 mile (walking) from the actual Pier D gates (the old ones, which will hopefully disappear eventually). When you leave, they DO give you a bag with water, nuts, small cookie, 1/2 lb (??) of jelly beans which is to be opened “ONLY AFTER YOU LEAVE THE CLUB” (I am not making this up).????!!!!!

    LGA/DCA. FC, A319, NADA, not even water although requested. Looks (literally) like the male FA’s backside was glued to the seat at front door.

    DCA Admiral’s club: Much more civilized, practically normal service / availability except not self service and all to request, but the 2 attendants worked their a** off nonstop and were charming. Bloody Mary was advertised at $ 9 (“Make your own”…). I asked for a beer, was told they were out of it and offered a bloody mary which was never charged though I offered twice.

    DCA/PWM, Republic Air (AE) E75, Full FC (12). Complete surprise, Charming and efficient lone FA who worked nonstop to insure a normal F short haul service, drinks and all (plastic glasses). Request for nuts was answered : “I am not supposed to but I have some… here”. Offer of seconds, AE at its pre-pandemic best.

    Go figure…

  20. Most food in the US is bad. Heavily processed, full of salt and a bunch of melted cheese to cover up the taste.

    I was so surprised when I went to Germany a while ago and even in a major train station I could get a sandwich with fresh ingredients. Then I had to come back home and deal with the crap at Subway.

    Just try and go somewhere and get a turkey sandwich that uses fresh sliced meat instead of processed salt filled deli meat.

    I do agree that too much is attempted with meals. Heck, give me a peanut butter sandwich and I’d enjoy that more. Unfortunately too many Americans think the crap they eat is good. A lady from Belgium visited the US many years ago and was horrified at the food.

  21. I’m hoping that the changes she’s hinting at might be, like, a change to an à la carte or ad-hoc service format, maybe ordering courses via the mobile app. But I’m probably giving AA way too much credit to hope for outside-the-box thinking.

  22. LGA Admiral’s club: NADA, no water, no NOTHING, PLUS Forbidden (??!!!) to eat your OWN food /drink your own water, which you might have brought (Plenty of concessions open in the new LGA terminal B Post -security hall, which would be magnificent if it were not located 1/2 mile (walking) from the actual Pier D gates (the old ones, which will hopefully disappear eventually). When you leave, they DO give you a bag with water, nuts, small cookie, 1/2 lb (??) of jelly beans which is to be opened “ONLY AFTER YOU LEAVE THE CLUB” (I am not making this up).????!!!!!
    – Pierre

    This is totally off-topic to the article, but everything you just cited is a consequence of NYC quarantine ordinances. AA has no choice in the matter. Lounges are considered restaurants, and they have to close and disallow food consumption on-premises if the city mandates it. Also, the LGA D gates are being discontinued in a matter of days, when the new Western Concourse opens on Aug 7.

  23. @Mike – LCCs pretty much put an end to the era of higher quality food in domestic F cabins. I was flying in the late ‘80s and don’t recall the food being great but a bit better than the current offerings. In the end, all heated airline entrees are processed food. But even if AA or other domestic carriers (I’m not talking about international F or J class food) upped their game, the food offerings will never rise to any “adequate” level in my opinion and I’m sure we would all be paying more for a marginal improvement.

  24. I honestly didn’t know so many people flew only because of the food offered on board.
    This is eye opening.

  25. Doesn’t make sense how food quality could suffer so much when Asian/ME airlines are still somehow able to provide decent food options. American carriers were already at the bottom, how much lower can you even go?

  26. @ Luke

    Yes, apologies for the “Off topic” past and renewed, and I do realize that this brilliant gubernatorial policy (or is it brilliant mayoral?) takes second stage to murdering thousands in nursing homes but it isn’t redeeming either.

    On the other hand, good news for the new AA gates. New Admiral’s Club coming?

  27. I personally don’t want a lame salad or a heavy appetizer that spreads the service out for an hour. Save that money for the entree. Just give me a decent hot entree and some fresh bread on one tray followed by a good dessert.

  28. On vacation sure I would pay up to $20 extra for a real good meal i would actually get to choose before boarding.

  29. Silly me but when I am paying $5,000 plus for a business class seat I expect a good meal in Business Class. Air France does it, Delta does it, and actually pre Covid 19 shutdown I thought American between NYC and London (where I connect) was really good… better than BA.

    Let’s hope that they do NOT listen to Ben.
    Ben, if you keep up these silly opinions I am going to remove you from my Christmas Card List!!

    Signed, the Grump old man.

  30. @rich – Lol, most food in the US is bad? You mention coming back home and having to eat at Subway? Are you a globetrotter who happens to live in a town of 1,500 in Appalachia? There is plenty of bad food in the US, i.e. Subway, but being a country of 330 million people featuring global cities with almost unlimited varieties of cuisine like New York City and LA, there’s plenty of good food too. Along with plenty of people who know good food. Get out of the sticks Rich…

  31. Couple of years back, BA changed their catering for business class, and started serving more traditional, cheaper British meals such as sausages and mashed potatoes with gravy (sure, I’m sure not everyone who reads this will welcome this choice!) but BA used higher quality, more expensive ingredients than the cheapest sausage available, but even then it was nowhere near the cost of lobster.

    Lobster on a budget vs amped up homestyle food? I’ll do homestyle every time. BA also found a similar outcome. When they served the same sausage meals to coach and biz class, the coach passengers avoided them, while the biz class passengers ordered them a lot. Reason was that biz class passengers were so used to restaurant style meals, that they welcomed something that was simpler and reminded them more of home cooked meals, or meals they had as kids, while the coach passengers wanted something more than they’d get at home.

  32. I’d like AA and others to stop providing only weird, ethnic “love it or hate it” meals. for both choices. How about making at least one choice something with broad appeal, such as a hamburger (they used to), a normal sandwich (or soup and sandwich ala CO). Get away form the over spiced, over salted items no one in the cabin would care to order.

  33. Hey Ben. Do you ever get exhausted from reading whiny and bitter comments even after writing a rather innocuous article that you wouldn’t think would trigger anyone? You ought to know by now you are supposed to read everyone’s mind and please every reader with every article. LOL! A fair amount of your readers, or maybe it’s a few trolls who change their names, like to blame you and always seem to think you are “letting them down” for a lot of weird things they make up in their heads. Bless you brother.

  34. Would love to see them get rid of cheap starchy fillers and non-meat options that usually consisted of pasta slathered with high fat cheeses. More calories than I normally eat in one day. And I’ve always hated the chocolate chip cookies. Get rid of the high fructose corn syrup salad dressings too. A little olive oil, red wine vinegar or lemon juice ( not sweet balsamic vinegar) and S&P on a fresh tasting green salad. Asian vegetarian options were slightly better than some regular options.

  35. The “Lobster Toast” or whatever they call it, looks like someone threw up on a slice of bread, seriously! Disgusting in true American style. Any news on when Turkish Airlines will get their flying chefs back? — Now that was an incredible experience. Please write about TK’s future plan of business class inflight meal service soon (we hope?)!

  36. The first thing that came to my head when I read the AA quotes is the system used by Eurowings and other quasi-LCCs that have a J cabin. They offer the same buy-on-board items with first pick to J for free. It works pretty well and is cost-effective since there aren’t any separate meals that have to be loaded. Many of the buy-on-board sandwiches and salads are already better than the glop served in domestic F.

  37. Brit living In FL
    ..pre Covid Travel was Trans USA & International, on those I would sleep and skip the meal
    If my vote counts …
    Fruit Plate or Cheese Plate is more than enough.. 6 hours 8 hours or more and the snack bar worked for me just fine…

    I say KISS
    Keep It Simple S…

  38. Back in the before times, I always pre-ordered the charcuterie plate on AA when my upgrade cleared more than 24 hours in advance. There were a few false-starts with pre ordering initially, but they got good at having it loaded on the plane after a couple months. I just flew ORD-MIA yesterday in first, and was happy to receive the fruit and cheese plate that they usually have in coach. That’s always my go-to in coach, and I’d be happy to receive it in first again.

  39. I agree with the idea of changing the food they serve. I have said to my husband I’d be happy with a well made quality sandwich or sub, a bowl of good chili, meatloaf with mashed potatoes, beef stew or soups…things that are comfort food and also satisfying. Trying to do restaurant style meals on airplanes seldom goes well. Plus, people who have been traveling whether pleasure or business have been eating out. They don’t need more of the same, but of lesser quality. And the sandwiches for sale in economy are quite good! I’d prefer that to some of meals I’ve had in first. Hope they keep the sundaes though. Those are great.

  40. If the airline had the option to pre-order / purchase an enhanced (edible) meal, like Norwegian or the now gone Nikkei, I would gladly do this. Why US airlines haven’t figured this out is beyond me. UA used to sell personal pizza and I swear this sells out by the fifth row in economy.

  41. Something wholesome and modest in business class and domestic first. California farmers market field greens , artisan sandwiches, etc. Think Mendecino Farms. they should be able to make a decent rising crust pizza in those galley ovens.

  42. @What Is Important!

    225,000 Americans die every month without any pandemic. It’s called life. Sooner or later everyone dies.

  43. I think one of the big problems is that outside the big cities, few Americans have any food culture like you find in Asia, Europe or Latin America. It’s microwave dinners, grease, salt, sugar and hormone treated meat. However – wall into a Pret in NY and it’s better than Pret in London. There are plenty of other options that offer great take away meals, be it a variety of salads, empanadas, sandwiches, pizza etc. Despite limitations of airline catering I’m sure AA could come up with something with broad appeal. They could also sell the same items in economy.

    Stock a trolley with a few options – a couple of salads, a couple of different sandwiches, fruit, a tapas plate thingy and one or two hot options for slightly longer flights. Do a partnership with a quality provider to develop a menu.

  44. Given the enigmatic way this article is written (with a perceivable leaning towards a negative expectation), and the even more puzzling-bordering-on-unintelligible comments of the PSV, I conclude that we’re highly unlikely to like the changes we’re going to see. If this is at the moment aimed at premium/first class travel, I dread to think what those of us who have to travel in cattle class are going to have to eat and how much extra it’s going to cost us.

  45. here’s an idea. don’t like airline food, then don’t eat it. want a quality sandwich, then bring it.
    problem solved.

  46. Airlines are using Corona as an excuse for cost cutting. Look at QR and EY who still serve the best meals on their flights. Both short haul and long haul routes.

  47. @Wilhelm – I completely agree! An offering similar to (or better yet, in partnership with) Pret would be a much better option than most current offerings. Their egg salad and arugula sandwich alone beats almost anything served on AA in domestic first.

  48. Rich is right. American food culture, generally speaking, sucks. Yes, you can find good food if you look for it (and are willing to pay), but as a whole, any sandwich in Europe will be 10x tastier and healthier. AA exemplifies this terrible utilitarian food culture. It’s just baffling why a travel blog would quasi-encourage this race to the bottom. It seems to me that when you pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for a flight, the least the airline can do is serve a decent $15 meal.

  49. The Jet Blue food looked good and eatable. I thought the lobster picture was pimento cheese on toast microwaved – that is unforgivable!

  50. Personally, I don’t care how long the flight is. Airline food sucks on the big three U.S. carriers.

    I would prefer nothing but drinks. I can grab and go food before I get on and have a choice.

    No carts up and down the aisles, no lights going on an off, less people moving around, etc.

    Hell, I would prefer a vending machine to the damn in flight service B.S.

  51. +1 Scott.

    I lived in Europe 5 years. A “sandwich” in Europe is a half baguette with one thin slice of meat or cheese; barely enough to fend off starvation. Say what you will about the USA or Canada, walking through an airport concourse, you can generally get something more substantial/varied than that. And yes, the overwhelming majority of meals on any airline in the USA are horrid. I’m all for doing away with them, but pass on the saving to the consumer, rather than repeating this “less is more and we will still price-gouge you” BS.

  52. I’ve always found it irritating that virtually nothing gets spent on food while some people get through hundreds of dollars worth of extravagant alcohol…

  53. I have never understood this need we seem to have for food service on a four hour flight. When I was flying regularly before the plague, I would buy the fruit and cheese tray just to kill 30 minutes, not because I was hungry. When I took a flight in June during the plague, it was actually pleasant. No interruptions, flight attendants not pushing a 200 lbs food cart up and down the aisle. I watched two movies, drank the little bottle of water that they gave me. I was quite happy. The time went by surprisingly fast.
    With all the restaurants and food shops available in most major airports we don’t need full food service and domestic flights.
    Save the money and lower the costs please.

  54. @Peter – Europe is a big place, don’t confuse the south with the north. You need to try some food from the Nordics. And yes, you get proper food at the airports too, unless it’s a tiny regional one.

  55. I think handing out a box lunches before boarding is the best option. Avoid carts blocking the aisle and minimizing contact between flight attendants and passengers.

  56. Watch Delta, BA and Jet Blue. They will lead and American will follow. American will follow in a lower cost / quality way. I don’t think one person at American even knows what other airlines are really offering. Do they even have chefs or do they hire a school’s cafeteria to come up with their menus. If you can fly first class take BA, Lufthansa, Qatar, Emirates or even charter. First Class in AA is such a waste of money…. Know from experience and won’t do that again. American has never been known for food or service so this article is kinda a waste. We all know they won’t do any better.

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