Return of a 'free' in-flight meal: Can it help Delta win customers?

As airlines continue to compete for customers, free meals are making a comeback on Delta. The focus on the in-flight experience reflects changing customer values.

David Goldman/AP/File
In this Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016, photo, a Delta Air Lines jet sits at a gate at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta. Delta announced Thursday that it is reintroducing free inflight meals on some of its longer US flights, an effort to respond to customer demand.

The humble airplane meal was once a target of flyers’ mockery and derision. A decade later, Delta passengers’ desire for a quality in-flight experience may have given it a new lease of life.

On Thursday, Delta announced that it would reintroduce free in-flight meals on longer domestic flights. Beginning March 1, customers flying between New York’s JFK airport and San Francisco or Los Angeles will be offered a range of new food options, which will be extended to 12 cross-country routes starting April 24. 

The breakfast menu includes a honey maple breakfast sandwich, a continental breakfast, and a fruit and cheese plate. Lunchtime fliers can choose between a mesquite-smoked turkey combo, a Luvo Mediterranean whole grain veggie wrap, and the fruit and cheese plate. Overnight flights are covered too, with passengers being offered a breakfast bar before arrival.

In a world of changing airline economics and customer expectations, “network carriers” like Delta are backing off the race for low prices that has dominated the past decade. Instead, they’re working to build customer loyalty by improving the piece of airline travel that customers say they really care about: the in-flight experience. So when flyers said they wanted free food, Delta listened.

“We are all about making our Main Cabin experience the best it can be for our customers and offering free, high quality meals is a big part of that experience,” said Allison Ausband, Delta’s senior vice president  of in-flight service in a statement.

In many cases, the in-flight experience was a casualty of the industry's financial turbulence. Airlines sought to restore profitability wherever possible, which meant food, blankets, and other perks had to go. When Continental stopped giving out free cookies and pretzels in 2011, it said the move would save $2.5 million a year.

"It was really about survival," Fernand Fernandez, vice president of global marketing at American, told the Associated Press, referring to the cost-cutting measures.

But times have changed. A decade on from the fiscal woes, airlines are experiencing record profitability, thanks to effective cost-cutting and low oil prices. In the first half of 2016 alone, the industry made $700 million more than it did in the first six months of 2015, Bloomberg reported.

For network carriers like Delta, the struggle is now justifying their higher price tag and retaining customers in the face of competition from ultra-low cost carriers such as Spirit and Frontier. But they’re getting a boost from changing customer tastes: passengers are increasingly willing to pay for an improved inflight experience.

“It’s definitely changing – the products that customers feel are most important to them and what we’re delivering,” Jonathan Guerin, a United spokesperson, told the Monitor in November. The in-flight experience is a centerpiece of United’s “Basic Economy” fare, he said, with a focus on snacks and entertainment.

These offerings can deliver a tangible improvement in customer satisfaction without breaking the bank, the airlines seem to have found. Over the summer, both American and Delta began offering free access to inflight entertainment on domestic flights, with American expanding internet coverage on its planes. American and United also brought back free snacks on US flights.

“In many cases the costs of providing things like better snacks are trivial, and I think it has been long enough since we had them that these frills are kind of new again,” Kent Gourdin, the director of the Global Logistics and Transportation program at the College of Charleston, previously told The Christian Science Monitor’s Christina Beck.

As Delta’s new meals demonstrate, the kinds of food customers want is changing, too. Though the menu will change regularly, the airline says the focus will be on local and seasonal foods. The company also upgraded its snack lineup last year to include brand names like Snyder’s of Hanover pretzels.

Following a successful test late last year, the company seems optimistic that the upgraded experience will demonstrate Delta’s value and win customers where it counts.

“When we tested this concept, our customers loved it and appreciated it so we are implementing in our most strategic markets,” Ms. Ausband said.

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