As travel gradually returns to normal, airline food and beverage service is — just as gradually — following suit. It’ll be a while before meal choices, drink offerings and snack options return to what you may remember from your last pre-pandemic flight, if they do return fully. (First-class travelers, rest assured that the frills are back. Alaska Airlines, for instance, has resumed serving dinner on porcelain dishes.) But airlines have been working throughout the pandemic on strategies to streamline the return of food and drink service and even give it a semblance of normalcy while keeping safety a topmost priority.
In December, the Federal Aviation Administration published a comprehensive national strategy for the recovery of the nation’s air transportation system. But although it recommended measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, it left the details of topics such as cleaning regimens, testing and ventilation adjustments up to the airlines themselves.
In terms of on-board dining, the FAA recommended that airlines “limit or discontinue food and beverage service on short-haul flights to encourage continuous mask use when possible. If food or drink is provided, it must be dispensed in a sealed, prepackaged container.” Each one interpreted that directive a bit differently.
As a result, travelers will see that food and beverage service varies considerably by airline. Some have eliminated alcohol service indefinitely, some have gradually brought back wine and beer, then spirits. Some have resumed hot meals recently, while others are sticking to packaged snacks. And in an effort to limit person-to-person contact, some airlines have gone digital with their menus, changed payment methods and even modified the frequency with which the crew moves through the cabin and delivers meals.
On United, for example, the airline is only accepting contactless payment, which means you’ll need to store your credit card info before departure in the United app’s digital wallet or on United.com. You’ll can also view the menu on the app. The flight attendant will ask for your name and seat number to confirm the card on file.
That’s just one of the changes the pandemic has prompted in the airline’s in-flight services. In late July, United became the first airline to offer economy customers an opportunity to preorder drinks and snacks. The service debuted on flights leaving Chicago for Honolulu and select California destinations. It will expand to all flights over 1,500 miles by early fall. The airline also revamped its dining options, introducing new items as recently as June. Meal offerings in domestic premium cabins on flights over 1,500 miles as well as flights over 800 miles that connect hub-to-hub now have fresh items and full meal options, such as egg scramble with plant-based chorizo, with sides and desserts. But unlike in the past, when meals were served in courses, they’re now delivered on a single tray with items individually wrapped.
This is significant progress from the start of the pandemic, when passengers received a bag with a wrapped sanitizer wipe, bottled water and two snacks. On June 15, United expanded its newly revamped “buy-on-board” menu of snacks and snack boxes on flights over 1,500 miles and on flights between hubs.
Throughout the pandemic, many airlines worked with consultants to establish in-flight health and safety protocols. Delta, for example, worked with the Mayo Clinic to develop its food-service changes. The airline made operational adjustments, such as introducing digital menus you can access with a QR code. Delta also offers a contactless payment process and digital receipts.
Hot meals only made a return in mid-June. Options such as short ribs with whipped potatoes are available to Delta One and First Class customers on select routes. But instead of being delivered course by course, the meal is served in its entirety to reduce touchpoints. Throughout the aircraft, all poured beverages — soft drinks, juice, water — have been replaced with individual cans. In fact, the pandemic became an opportunity to introduce new products, such as Tip Top Proper Cocktails, a canned cocktail. On Memorial Day weekend, Delta unveiled Elevated H.A.Z.Y. IPA, a beer that Atlanta’s SweetWater Brewing Company custom-designed with more hops for optimal flavor at cruising altitude, where taste buds get dulled.
“We’re doing everything to be safer for customers. Reducing touchpoints allows for swifter service, which is safer for customers and employees,” said Kristen Manion Taylor, Delta’s senior vice president of in-flight service. “Now, as demand is recovering and more people are vaccinated, including employees, it’s time to slowly reintroduce more.”
Alaska Airlines is also taking a gradual approach. Its return to drink service involves the introduction of single-serve containers for drinks. By eliminating even the short amounts of time that flight attendants spend waiting for carbonation to settle, they can move through the cabin more efficiently, said Todd Traynor-Corey, managing director of guest products for Alaska Airlines.
“Over the pandemic, we were really slowly and methodically phasing in different service elements and alcohol options,” he said. “Partnering with epidemiologists has been super helpful. It’s hard to go from nothing to full service; it’s like ripping off a Band-Aid. We’ve done things slowly and in phases.”
At the start of the pandemic, Alaska Airlines was offering packaged snacks in the main cabin. In November, it reintroduced fresh food, including one of its longtime popular items, a fruit and cheese platter, to the main cabin. Since April, hot meals are again available in first class, but the components are delivered on a single tray, not in courses as they were before. In May, it added a sandwich option.
American Airlines continues to serve pared-down food options based on consultations with the Association of Professional Flight Attendants and medical experts. Whereas pre-pandemic, first class and business class fliers received hot meal service on flights over 900 miles, the present “Fresh Bites” offerings include fresh fruit, yogurt and breakfast sandwiches in the morning and sandwiches and salads for lunch and dinner. Hot meal tray service in these sections wasn’t halted on transcontinental flights during the pandemic, but meals were served on a single tray, not in courses. A spokesperson said tray service will resume in first and business class on all flights this fall. On flights over 250 miles, main-cabin passengers can get a nonalcoholic beverage and a complimentary snack, such as pretzels and cultishly popular Biscoff cookies. Before the pandemic, fliers had an option to purchase food on flights over 700 miles. There are no additional snacks for purchase. Alcohol and meals are available on long-haul international flights. On flights under 250 miles, nonalcoholic beverages are available upon request.
Southwest is sticking with the basics. There are no snacks or water on flights under 250 miles. Water, coffee, Coke, Diet Coke and 7 Up are served on flights longer than 250 miles. There are no meals on any of the airline’s flights. A snack-mix packet is provided on trips between 251 and 1,520 miles. On longer flights, passengers get the snack-mix packet and Brownie Brittle. A more elaborate snack bag is offered on flights to and from Hawaii. Jet Blue is also offering a limited selection of free snacks, such as Cheez-Its and cookies, full-size drinks, tea and coffee. Snack boxes, beer and wine are for sale. Fresh food and spirits have yet to return.
Alcohol service has become a matter of drama and debate in recent months, with many blaming it for exacerbating in-flight confrontations, some of which have gone viral. Many U.S. airlines have phased beer, wine and spirits back into their offerings this year. On June 1, for example, United made its first major update to its food and beverage program when it brought back beer, wine and White Claw to most flights over two hours. Other airlines are holding off. American has not announced a date when alcohol service will resume. In May, Southwest announced a plan to resume alcohol sales on most flights in summer, but walked back those plans the same month. A return date has not been announced.
“Given the recent uptick in industry-wide incidents of passenger disruptions during flight, Southwest made the decision to pause the restart of alcohol service onboard,” a Southwest spokesperson wrote in an email. “We realize this decision may be disappointing for some Customers, but we feel this is the right decision in the interest of the Safety and comfort of all Customers and Crew onboard.”
Overall, there’s a general sense of optimism among airlines’ top management that service will eventually return to normal, given the precautions and attention that airlines are giving to reintroducing their food and drink options.
“We want to listen to customer feedback and determine what things are most important and how to create a more elevated flying experience,” said a United spokesperson. “We’re being deliberate and careful in how we roll out these offerings, and that will take time.”
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel domestically and around the world. You will find the latest developments at www.washingtonpost.com/coronavirus