washingtonpost.com  > Business > Columnists > Business Class
Keith Alexander

Fliers Find Buying Onboard Food Hard to Digest

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; Page E01

Whenever Sandra Wilson has a flight of more than two hours out of Reagan National, she races to California Pizza Kitchen inside the terminal for a small cheese pizza to take aboard.

The Fairfax-based attorney pays $8 for the pizza rather than buy an airline sandwich in the air, which runs about $5.

_____Budget Airlines_____
Invasion Of the Budget Carriers (The Washington Post, Apr 18, 2004)
List of Budget Airlines (pdf)

_____Recent Columns_____
Computerized Calls Test Fliers' Patience (The Washington Post, Mar 8, 2005)
In-Flight Perks Are Steadily Disappearing (The Washington Post, Mar 1, 2005)
Consumers Exercise Their Growing Clout (The Washington Post, Feb 22, 2005)
Read more Business Class columns

"I bought a sandwich once and swore I'd never do it again," she said.

Wilson and other passengers like her are the reason that buy-on-board service isn't measuring up to the airlines' original expectations. Two years ago, carriers began eliminating meal service in coach and offering passengers an opportunity to buy a pre-packaged snack or sandwich during their flight. The move was aimed at reducing the cost of providing hot meals to all travelers.

Delta Air Lines last week conceded that buy-on-board meals were unpopular and ended the program in coach. Travelers will instead receive complimentary snacks.

Other airlines are watching Delta's move closely. Airline executives said the buy-on-board service requires a careful balancing act: They want to be sure to have enough meals on board to meet passenger demand, but not so many that some would have to be discarded at a loss.

United Airlines is revising its buy-on-board meal program along the lines of what is offered aboard its low-cost, low-fare unit Ted. United plans to replace its current buy-on-board fare -- $10 salads and sandwiches -- with the mini-meal snack boxes served on Ted, which include Wheat Thins, Milano cookies and gourmet beef salami slices. United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said the move was aimed at reducing costs and increasing revenue. No date for the changeover has been set, but it will be "soon," she said.

Arlington-based government relations executive Lyle Piper opted for a complimentary granola bar on his three-hour American Airlines flight between San Diego and Dallas last week instead of buying what he called a "dry sandwich" for $5. He said he doesn't buy the food sold aboard planes and often just grabs a sandwich at an airport restaurant, if he has time.

American became one of the last carriers to adopt the buy-on-board concept when it launched its service just last month. American spokesman Tim Wagner said the response from customers has been "quite positive" but added that the airline was "keeping an eye on how the industry responds" to Delta's move. American charges $3 for a snack box, which contains Pepperidge Farm crackers, beef salami slices, cheddar cheese, fruit mix and a small bag of Oreo cookies. The airline charges $5 for either a turkey tortilla wrap or turkey, cheddar cheese and sliced hard-boiled-egg croissant.

America West in 2003 became one of the first airlines to eliminate free meal service in coach, replacing it with meals selling for $2 to $5. About 35 percent of the passengers were initially purchasing meals, said America West spokesman Carlo Bertolini. Demand has since dropped to around 20 percent.

After surveying customers, America West added more selections, including cheeseburgers, and is seeing demand pick up, Bertolini said.

US Airways spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said the airline had no plan to eliminate its buy-on-board service "as of right now." But Kudwa added that the airline would respond to any changes in the marketplace.

Bryan Cox, a Washington-based senior legislative director for the American Council of Life Insurers, said that while he often purchases a snack at the airport and takes it on his flight, he likes having the option of also purchasing a snack during a flight. "It's nice to know I have an alternative."

• Fares Are Climbing: For the second time in two weeks, the nation's airlines have raised their round-trip, domestic air fares by $10 to $20. The move was led by Northwest Airlines. Even Southwest Airlines raised its fares by $1 to $3 each way. The airlines blamed the increases on rising fuel costs. The airlines are boosting fares as travelers begin making spring and summer travel plans.

• Question of the Week. A recent report by the Homeland Security Department and the FBI said that the nation's airlines remain vulnerable to terrorist attack, despite billions of dollars spent on security. As frequent travelers, do you feel safe on airlines today? If not, what more needs to be done to ensure air safety? Send your comments to alexanderk@washpost.com. Please include your name and a daytime telephone number.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company