Rethinking the Airline Meal

Food is now being sold in-flight and online to travelers

By: By R. Scott Macintosh

Though airlines have eliminated or scaled back on serving free meals, new experiments with selling food are being tried both in-flight and online to capitalize on the hungry traveler.

Airlines such as America West and Northwest have started selling meals on flights in attempts to find new revenue streams. The efforts are being viewed by the industry as a test of whether airlines can sell services that were once included in the cost of airfare.

In January, America West became the first U.S. airline to offer customers the option. Northwest followed, selling meals in the same markets as America West.

“(Northwest is) doing it to see if it will be a better test by pitting themselves against America West,” said Mort Beyer, chairman of the airline consulting firm Morten Beyer & Agnew. “And it may be to spoil the America West experiment.”

The experiment is not limited to airlines alone.

Sabre, the largest North American global distribution system (GDS), is working with Cardinal Technologies, a Rockville, Md.-based tech company, to offer food options that can be ordered through travel agents or booked over the Internet as far as nine months ahead of time.

The new service, called Carry-On Cuisine, allows travelers to order the meals through its Web site or a Sabre travel agent for pick-up prior to a flight’s departure.

“Travelers have been asking for good food for a long time,” said Earl Furfine, Cardinal Technologies CEO. “I hope we’re finally giving them what they have been asking for.”

Carry-On Cuisine is only available at Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National Airport and offers a limited boxed-lunch menu from TGI Friday’s. But there are plans to expand to Providence, Newark, and JFK mid-year and to expand the menu as well. Furfine expects the service to be operating in the nation’s top 25 airports by the end of the year.

Agents can place orders for their clients through a link on the eVoya Webtop and clients can also order when downloading travel itineraries through Sabre’s co-branded Virtually There Web site.

“We’re going to benefit because travel agents are going to benefit,” said Andrea Spica, managing director of Mobile Travel Services for Sabre. “It’s a value added service, so they can extend the service they give to customers.”

Sabre will not consider commissions on meals until the system is fully in place. For some airlines, meals are no longer an option and menus are being scaled back or eliminated altogether. United is downgrading its food service, substituting beverages and snacks for traditional meals on many flights. American Airlines has determined that selling food onboard is too expensive.

Carry-On Cuisine is hoping their service will be attractive to all airlines, including those already selling meals. It is trying to work out deals to deliver at the gate, and eventually onboard the airplane.

The airline caterer LSG Sky Chefs, the driving force behind Northwest’s food selling effort, says that nearly three-quarters of the business travelers they surveyed wanted the meal-purchase option on flights.

However, there is a real possibility that selling meals that were once offered for free could leave a bad taste with travelers.

“There may be some increased revenue, but it may also make people feel exploited, like (the airlines) were putting in pay toilets,” Beyer said. “Maybe that’s the next step.”