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TravelHaven News Brief ― No such thing as a free meal anymore

Continental airlines, recently merged with United, has become the last major U.S. airline to drop free meals. The carrier has announced it will sell buy-on-board meals on all domestic flights under six hours.

The move from free food reflects the current market and consumer preference. It also will save the airline an estimated $35 million a year. that may seem small change in terms of the billions of dollars earned annually by a successful airline, but it’s still a significant sum in today’s ‘every penny counts’ business philosophy.

Most experts believe that few fliers will care that Continental has cut its complimentary meal service. For most economy passengers schedule and cost comes. In-flight meals have long been considered merely a bonus.

Where will such economies in amenities end? Most airlines still offer complimentary beverages and many provide some sort of free snack, including AirTran, Continental, Delta, Southwest, and United, all of which hand out some mix of pretzels, peanuts, crackers, or cookies.

Midwest Airlines has maintained its famous complimentary, warm chocolate chip cookies, even after it merged with Frontier. Alaska Airlines hands outs complimentary Cougar Mountain cookies on some longer flights and a small serving of Mauna Loa Macadamia nuts and complimentary Mai Tai or passion orange guava juice on flights to Hawaii. JetBlue gives its passengers unlimited chips, cashews, and animal crackers. Horizon Air offers its passengers a different Northwest wine and microbrew each month at no extra charge.

Passengers are accepting the idea of buying their own in-flight meals, if any meal service is provided at all.
Zagat’s 2009 airline passenger survey reported that 19% said they’d pay willingly for snacks on domestic flights. Only 6% said they would purchase buy-on-board meals if a free meal isn’t offered.

More than half of the respondents said they buy in-flight meals at the airport. Airlines and airports are in competition for food sales.

Not all airlines are ceding meal sales to airport concessionaires however. For customers flying premium service between New York and Los Angeles or San Francisco, United Airlines introduced two $24.99 brunch options that include sparkling wine, provided the meals are ordered online at least 72 hours before the flight.