MIAMI — American Airlines is set to ax meals from its first class cabin on most of its shorter flights, effective September 1st. The airline says the change is being made to align the dining experience more closely with that of US Airways as the two continue to merge.
The Ft. Worth-based airline will be switching to snacks in first class for flights under two hours, forty-five minutes or 999 miles or less. American currently offers full meal service on flights over two hours.
Passengers on flights under two hours/699 miles will be switched over to light snacks, including cookies and pretzels, according to the carrier. Flights between two and two hours, forty-five minutes will include items such as fresh fruit, packaged snacks, and sandwiches. Besides the meals, the change also signals the end of the warm mixed nuts that has become one of the signature services on board in first.
American Eagle flights will lose hot meals altogether beginning on October 1, paring back to chilled gourmet box meals instead.
The policy change affects mainline and Eagle-branded flights operating in the US domestically, as well as to Canada, Mexico, and certain Caribbean destinations.
Not all routes will face the downgrade, however. Fifteen city pairs will retain the three-course service up front. The full list of lucky destinations includes:
- Chicago to: Boston, Denver, New York Kennedy & LaGuardia, Raleigh-Durham, Washington Reagan
- Dallas/Fort Worth to: Chicago, Detroit, Salt Lake City
- Fort Lauderdale to: Port Au Prince
- Miami to: Houston Bush, Port Au Prince
- New York Kennedy to: Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa
The change comes on the heels of an April decision to expand full meal service on US Airways flights from 3.5 hours to the current two hours and forty-five minutes.
Industry analysts, such as Henry Harteveldt with Atmosphere Research Group, weren’t terribly enthused about the change. “At a time when American is raising its fares and reporting record profits, it’s disappointing to see them gut their customer experience, rather than investing to improve it and make the airline tangibly better than its competition.” The move positions American’s service to more closely resembles the experience with rival United, which is not exactly known to be a bastion of excellent service. Delta, meanwhile, offers meals on flights over 900 miles.
The change has received a lukewarm reception from American’s frequent fliers (FF). One of them is Michael Slattery, who flies the airline to the tune of 65,000 miles per year on average. He admits that “a full meal never really made much sense to me on very short flights, especially given the overall quality of airline food.” He concedes, however, that “as silly as it sounds, I will miss the mixed nuts. It just became a staple;…the reward for being a frequent flier and earning upgrades.”
That last part, about the mixed nuts being a staple/reward, is key. While a bowl full of salted almonds and cashews or a small meal may sound trivial, such small perks build up atmosphere, expectations, and ultimately, loyalty. They point to two of the largest selling points of a first class ticket: exclusivity and reliability. Those nuts aren’t getting passed out in coach, and that meal is one less thing a road-warrior needs to worry about while traveling between meetings.
As both exclusivity and reliability appear to erode, customers are left feeling as though they’re paying the same (or more) for less. Indeed, members of the popular frequent flyer forum FlyerTalk zeroed in on that point, with many suggesting that if they’re going to have pay first-class prices for what they perceive to be coach-class service, they might as well just pay the coach-class fare and move on back.
But blustery rhetoric and concrete action are two different things. If the past is any guide, the likelihood that long-time high-value customers will bail over nuts and the loss of a meal on a short flight is low. “Maybe there is a tipping point at which a customer will truly alter their purchasing behavior as a result of these small changes. But recent history has yet to identify such a pattern with any airline in any market,” says aviation industry analyst Seth Miller.
In short, the vast majority of folks will accept the change and move on. Luis Linares, a lifetime Gold Elite member says “realistically I’ll continue to buy from and fly with them,” admitting that he’d have to “start from scratch” with any other carrier to achieve the status he has now. Stephen Trimble, an AA executive platinum member and Americas Managing Editor at Flightglobal, took a more flippant perspective: “It doesn’t bother me,” he says, “That food isn’t meant to be eaten anyway.”