I am a longtime student of the airline industry, with more than a few years spent working in it. Airlines are interesting entities for dozens of different reasons. One of the most fascinating aspects of the relationship between the domestic U.S. airlines and their customers is the debate on catering. Yes, airplane food. There are probably two dozen threads on FlyerTalk right now talking about airline food, especially AAirline food.

Words like inedible, vile, and disgusting get thrown around a lot. While I’ve been presented with some airline entrees that I loved less than others, I’ve never…..ever…..had anything placed in front of me that I would call inedible, vile, or disgusting. My expectations are for “mass market” food on your average domestic run, and I’ve never been disappointed. For sure, I’ve had some above average catering in flight, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those experiences were mostly on non-U.S. airlines. On the other hand, I’ve enjoyed some pretty decent meals on domestic flights in premium cabins like AA’s A321T. It doesn’t stand up to what I used to enjoy on the 3-class DC-10s that used to serve the market, but I digress.

aa first class dinner, ice cream

At least the ice cream is difficult to mess up.  © 2015 – Cruise Concierge, LLC.

A question raised in one of the FlyerTalk threads I was looking at stood out. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but the gist of the question was not understanding why an airline can’t spring for an extra $20 on catering when a customer is spending thousands on a ticket? I think that’s a totally legitimate question/complaint. However, I think the answer is that your average beancounter financial superstar that runs an airline nowadays doesn’t think spending that extra $20 will generate any additional revenue, only an expense times ever how many thousands of meals they buy. In fact, they believe that if they do that and a competitor does not….and offers a fare for $3 less, the majority of customers will vote for saving $3. If you look at all the travel purchase decisions that happen in this country day in and day out, that financial manager is probably right. I’d further speculate that the customers that really are willing to pay extra are already flying an airline known for a higher level of catering and service anyway.

Will things change? Maybe. Nips and tucks in catering at the domestic airlines aren’t unusual. AA has undone some of its least popular changes and competitive pressures could lead to further improvements. However, I’m not sure I can see a business case for 5-star (can we get 3-star?!?!) catering from most of the domestic U.S. airlines in the foreseeable future.

Just a random thing to ponder in travel this Saturday morning.

-MJ, June 13, 2015