A leading travel site now offers passengers a new way to check in advance which flights offer meals. (Photo: iStock)
When you book a flight, you likely will check the departure/arrival times. You’ll look at the seating chart. You might even check to see if the plane has Wi-Fi. But how much time do you spend researching the in-flight meal: Is there one? What will be served? Is it free or do you have to pay?
Even if you try to research the in-flight meal beforehand, good luck making sense of the airline’s byzantine rules governing which routes serve a meal, a snack or nothing at all.
Today, the travel site Routehappy says it’s taking the guesswork out of in-flight dining. Starting today, Routehappy will add “fresh food” to the list of amenities data it compiles for flights on more than 100 airlines.
Routehappy lists this Virgin America flight’s amenities, including Wi-Fi availability and, in the bottom left-hand corner, a new listing for Fresh Food. (Photo: Routehappy)
“Along with all the amenities such a Wi-Fi, power, seat type, and seat pitch, you’ll see a little food icon and a description of what you should expect on board,” Jason Rabinowitz, Routehappy’s data research manager, says about the change to his site. “For just about every flight you search for on Routehappy, you’ll find information — down to the cabin and flight level — of what fresh food will be available. Will you get a meal on board? Will a meal be available for purchase? Will there be a fresh snack available? What you have to preorder or will there be no meal at all?”
Related: Should You Eat the Airline Food or Chew on the Seat Cushion? Healthiest In-Flight Menus
Keep in mind, we’re not talking about the standard foil bag of peanuts. “Fresh food is defined by us as something that isn’t ‘shelf stable,’” says Rabinowitz. “It’s not pre-packaged salami or those sealed packages of hummus. It has to be something that’s loaded on [planes] daily and must be consumed that day — like fresh fruit or a freshly plated meal.”
Keep in mind, we’re talking “fresh” food; not that bag of nuts in the foil package. (Photo: iStock)
Yes, airlines do make this information available online. But Rabinowitz says each airline has its own rules as to when or if meals are served. An airline can say, for instance, it offers meal service between 6 a.m. and 8:59 p.m., but only if the flight is more than two hrs and 59 minutes long and/or on a particular route. The rules vary from airline to airline and, often, within each airline, so you often can’t tell if your specific flight offers food. In the time it takes to decipher that code, you can just buy a sandwich at the gate and bring it with you on board.
Now that Routehappy has compiled this new meal data, they’ve gleaned new insight into what the Big Three domestic airlines are doing with in-flight meals:
Food’s generally not hard to get on a long-haul First Class flight. But Delta’s been making food available on shorter shuttle flights, too. (Photo: Delta Air Lines)
Routehappy says fresh food on domestic flights generally is available for sale (or for free, if you’re talking premium cabins) only on flights longer than 700-800 miles. But Delta has some notable exceptions: it offers a free fresh snack on its Los Angeles to San Francisco shuttle, while its LaGuardia (NYC) to O'Hare (Chicago) shuttle has a plated fresh meal in First Class on all flights.
Rabinowitz says airlines will offer food on shorter routes if it’s for what he calls a “high profile” route. “Every airline does this kind of thing,” he says, citing American Airlines’ First Class food offerings in its relatively short flights between Washington and Chicago. “They know this is a high profile, high-expense route so they offer a meal on that flight. It’s not just Delta; every airline does these odd tweaks and alterations to their own rules when they think there’s high enough demand.”
United is getting singled out for expanding some of its offerings. (Photo: United)
“United has really been improving the passenger experience on a lot of different fronts,” Rabinowitz says, citing the airline’s recent announcement that they’re offering three-course meal services in Economy class on international flights. “That’s a big change for them,” he says. He also points to United’s recent plans to offer fresh meals on some of their regional jet service flights (in premium cabins). “United has been focusing on offering fresh food on more flights,” he says.
On American, some premium passengers can pre-select their meals. (Photo: American)
American allows premium passengers flying internationally to pre-select “gourmet” meals. Rabinowitz says it’s part of a trend among all the leading U.S.-based carriers to improve their food offerings, especially in comparison to international carriers, which used to have a reputation for being more generous with meal service than their American competitors.
Related: Airline Food We Actually Ate in 2014
“That’s becoming less and less true,” Rabinowitz says. “American carriers really have been stepping up their game and catching up with their European counterparts.”
But sometimes you don’t want a meal
Rabinowitz points out most U.S. West Coast to East Coast redeye flights do not offer fresh food, for obvious reasons. “On those red-eye flights, passengers want as much sleep as possible; I know I do,” he laughs. “Meal service would just keep the cabin crew moving about the whole time. You’d probably have more passengers upset that they weren’t able to sleep than people mad about not getting the meal.” Maybe in addition to ranking a flight’s Wi-Fi, seat selection and, now, food service, Routehappy can compile data about which flights are best for sleeping. Now that’s data we can use!