Delta Air Lines is bringing back complimentary meals — not just snacks, meals — to its premium transcon routes between JFK and LAX/SFO. Will this force American Airlines and United Airlines to match?
Delta’s New Meal Plan
Delta is adding complimentary meals to two domestic routes (it already serves free meals on Hawaiian routes from Atlanta, Minneapolis, and New York)–
Starting March 1, 2017 Delta will be adding complimentary meals in their Main Cabin on Transcontinental flights between New York (JFK) to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
- Both Main Cabin and Delta Comfort+ customers will be offered one of three meal choices – including a vegetarian option – on both AM and PM flights
- Customers will be able to request a special meal as they do on all other Delta flights with complimentary meal offerings
- Flight Fuel will no longer be sold on board Transcon flights, effective March 1
- Alcohol will continue to be offered for sale on Transcon flights
Last autumn Delta trialed complimentary meals on the same route (sandwiches and chips, though, not full meals) and apparently the response was well-received. We’ll see if the new “meals” are just wraps or a hot meal like on Hawaiian flights.
Why is Delta Bringing Back Free Meals?
I do think it is a curious move by Delta, but perhaps the analysts truly are wrong. We often hear a refrain something like this: consumers are primarily price conscious and will not pay more for an airline ticket with extra benefits if there is a cheaper option. That’s not totally true, as many refuse to fly ultra-low-cost-carriers like Spirit or Frontier even though it saves money. Nevertheless, consumers are not going to pay an extra $50 to fly Delta over American at approximately the same time in economy class just for a “free” meal.
But what is the magic number? Delta is certainly weighing that and I can only say that from my perspective, assuming I could not upgrade, I still would take JetBlue over any competitor. Why? Because I value fast internet and JetBlue delivers. Even so, if American and Delta were the same price, I’d certainly book Delta. In fact, I’d probably pay about $10 more just because a decent meal helps a six-hour flight fly by faster. Is that the magic number? $10? How will Delta advertise this?
Or perhaps Delta won’t even attempt — at least now — to sell its product at a premium. Perhaps it simply wants to invest a bit more now (i.e. the cost of a coach meal) to win long-term loyalty. Contrary to most analysts, I do believe offering a reliable, comfortable product impacts the purchasing decisions of even price-conscious leisure travelers. I never have clients complain about Delta. On the other hand, I have a long list of clients who refuse to travel on United or American. Singapore Airlines, in my experience at least, is not all that it is cracked up to be. Nevertheless, it still maintains an aura of exclusivity and luxury that was built up through years of excellent service. If Delta is trying to innovate in this way, I say more power to them.
Will United and American Match?
We’ve seen legacy carriers mimic each other over the last decade in both cost-cutting and in restoring some amenities during the current economic boom. But will they match this?
American stated last year it would offer complimentary meals on its longest domestic route, Dallas to Honolulu. There is no mention of this on the website and when you book this flight it indicates “snacks for purchase”. United has arguably the best buy-on-board program with hearty hot options in addition to the snacks and cold plates Delta and American offer. But, United does not offer complimentary meals on any route, including its Newark and Washington Dulles to Honolulu routes that are over 11 hours.
I do think AA and UA will be watching closely to see if Delta’s new program is well-received. Again, how to measure that will be tricky.
Carriers have done a great job over the last several years in downplaying expectations. Who expects a free meal anymore? We also know that oil prices will rise again, recession will hit again, and carriers will not be in the enviable position they are in now.
Thus, I don’t think American and United will match if they can help it. In fact, their money would be better spent on airport infrastructure (like Dulles…) than free meals.
Delta’s move to restore free meals is curious because it defies conventional wisdom and bucks consumer expectations. I do applaud Delta for this move and will be watching closely to see if this wins it more business.