After flying international carriers and US airlines the difference is three-fold: Catering, Service, Network. By fixing just catering any US airline could be unstoppable.
US Business Class Catering Is Terrible
There’s still time in 2018 for a submission for “The Most Obvious Statement of 2018” and it would be “US Carriers Business Class catering is terrible.” What do I win? Flying other international carriers make the disparity dramatic. It’s everything from selection to quality to execution – across the board, catering is just a terrible afterthought. While it wasn’t the only reason I left American last year, catering was the issue that pushed me to try another carrier. In this one anecdotal case, American Airlines cheap and uncompetitive food offering cost them $15,000 in revenue I spent with United this year instead.
Their Pricing Is Uncompetitive Given Deficiencies
I will never understand why airlines that have a knowledge of how their product is inferior to competitors will price at or above the competition. I know a little about airfare pricing, though not as much as someone like Brett from Cranky Flyer. There are other factors that contribute to pricing like load factor, direct routing, equipment, etc.
But just look at the options you have on this route:
For the avoidance of doubt, I checked the space available on those flights and each carrier has plenty of seats. United and American both have the most seats they list available.
At least all of these carriers fly equipment with lie-flat beds in the front of the plane, but United’s Business product on this route is still 2-2-2 without direct aisle access. Given the choices, who in their right mind is paying more to fly any airline besides Emirates? It’s no contest.
International Carriers Have Great Catering From US Airports
If one were to argue that this is down to better catering facilities at other airports outside the US, let me stop you right there. Emirates, Etihad, Turkish, and Singapore all fly to and from US airports. Singapore offers Lobster Thermidor from US gateways, Lufthansa has caviar on board in First class. Qatar loaded an incredible Business class menu out of LAX when I flew them last year. It’s not an issue of ability, it’s an issue of gumption and cost.
Take the Wagyu beef cheeseburger from Cathay Pacific, for example. They offer it, not as the main course, but as a snack. And it’s really, really good. I tried it on the way to Hong Kong two years ago around Christmas from O’Hare. American has access to the same catering facilities out of Chicago, why don’t they have this on the menu? They don’t believe they will get a premium for it. However, not every flight is competitive, dollar for dollar. Adding $17 in cost to 30-50 seats that are less sensitive to price seems like an easy decision.
Spend $50, Become Insta-famous
Harping on bad catering offerings from US Carriers in premium cabins is certainly not a new concept. However, what I am proposing is that US carriers could spend just $50 more per Business class passenger and drastically improve their offering. The average cost for Business class meals is already about $33 on average including cutlery, china, and delivery. Imagine if airlines added another $17 per person and had meals that beat the world’s best. Airlines could limit their cost increases by requiring passengers to “book the cook” as Singapore does for truly premium meals and avoid waste.
There’s an opportunity to go from bad, to great. I left American Airlines after more than 15 years of loyalty because of the appalling approach to meal service when compared with oneworld partner Qatar, who blew American out of the water for half the price. Imagine if your next flight on United included a surf & turf option (assuming good execution), or Delta offered a Chateaubriand. If American Airlines offered xiaolongbao on flights to China, they would forever have my daughter’s heart.
US-based airlines have a huge opportunity to impress their customers. By spending just a little more than they already do to deliver something over-the-top for their Business class customers, they could create something worth bragging about online.
United has already generated some of this buzz for themselves by revamping their international Business class Polaris lounges and introducing the invite-only Classified restaurant at Newark. Spend a little money and make it something to look forward to; Business class passengers have a reason to book United over Delta and American – but it’s an awful lot more expensive than just improving the catering on each outbound flight (which leaves an opportunity for Delta and American).
Execution is Just As Important As Food Quality
US Carriers will have to do more than just have better food onboard, they will have to execute the preparation and presentation of that food on the aircraft. I used to routinely order the filet on American Airlines in long-haul business class. Sometimes it was executed at a high level, other times it would come out in the tin used in the oven swimming in its watery juices.
Flight Attendants cannot mail in their performance if the investment is made. I have found that in United Polaris service, flight attendants enjoy offering something better. They encourage wine flights and walk the cabin with a peppermill. But they need to add a flight attendant instead of removing them to deliver because no matter how good the food is if it’s poorly prepared or presented it might as well have been flushed down the toilet.
What do you think? Would you be more likely to book one carrier over another if their food was exceptional? Do you think $17 more on a $3,000 ticket will cost airlines considerable margin? Are there other cheap and easy ways to improve?